First, gentle reader, let me be among the last (probably) to wish you a happy new year – and, my word, we don’t half need one. I hope you’re doing as well as can be expected under these trying circumstances, Covid-dodging on a daily basis, crossing every digit available for your turn for the vaccine to come as soon as possible.
It’s thin pickings for a theatre blogger at the moment; not only because the theatres are all closed, but also because, try as I might, I find it hard to get enthusiastic about live streaming theatre. I know, I know, my bad. I thought I would take to it like a duck to water; instead, I’ve taken to it like Boris Johnson to the truth. It tends to remind me more of what we’re all missing, rather than having something that’s worth it in itself. And I know it’s worth it, and I definitely implore you to keep downloading and streaming, because the industry needs it. Please forgive me if I simply can’t bring myself to do it too.
One difference (for me) from Lockdown 1.0 to Lockdown 3.0 – I feel more fired up about reading. Last March and April I couldn’t have cared less for the written word. Today I feel it ought to play more of a part in my daily rituals. So I shall definitely be continuing with my Agatha Christie and Paul Berna Challenges, and, on a less regular basis, the James Bond Challenge (they’re a lot of work and take a long time to write!) I’ll also try to keep up with my nostalgic theatre memories and my lockdown travel reminiscences. As for going back to the theatre, I feel as though it will be unlikely for me until I’ve had both doses of my vaccine and given them the statutory three weeks to bed in. With current progress, I hope that means I’ll be in time for next Christmas’s pantos!
I knew there was something else I wanted to tell you. There’ll be no Chrisparkle Awards this January. There doesn’t seem a lot of point hiring the costumes and the television cameras etc to celebrate 10 weeks’ worth of live entertainment (not that it isn’t worth celebrating, but I’m sure you get my drift). With any luck the Awards will return this time next year. Or this time in two years’ time. Who knows.
Stay safe everyone. Look after your minds as well as your bodies. We can all feel somewhat fragile at the moment – there’s no shame in that. My appreciation for the emergency services and the NHS is off the scale; may all the people who work there safely and successfully keep us all well whilst remaining fit and healthy themselves. We’ll get through it all, I’m sure.
In which we meet 14-year-old Daniel Quint, who, with his little brother Manou, and Manou’s pet guinea-pig Patapon, has to follow his grandfather’s detailed instructions on how to get from his school in Besançon via Paris to the family villa, the Villa Etchola, in Chiberta, near Biarritz. However, when grandfather’s plans start to go astray, will Daniel and Manou make it safely to meet up with the rest of the family?
The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man was first published in 1958 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Les Pèlerins de Chiberta, which translates literally as The Pilgrims of Chiberta, with illustrations by Barry Wilkinson. Wilkinson was an experienced artist who worked on the children’s TV programmes Rainbow and Jackanory, as well as illustrating the book Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery in 1966. He lived from 1923 to 2007, and there is a blue plaque commemorating him outside his house in Compton Avenue, Brighton. As “The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1965, and by Puffin Books in 1968. Like the previous Puffin editions, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the second Puffin edition, reprinted in 1977, bearing the price 50p. This edition has a cover illustration by Michael Charlton, another prolific illustrator of children’s books, who lived from 1923 to 2008.
A very different tone is set at the beginning of this book, from those Berna books we’ve already read. The ruffian gangs of Gaby and Charloun, and the working-class Frederick of Magpie Corner have been replaced by the much more refined Daniel and Manou, exquisitely presented and immaculately dressed and behaved, in a fine hotel dining room, able to hold their own with their innate class. Are we going to take to these privileged young chaps in the same way that we take the earlier gang members to our hearts? It’s a risk, but Berna is a master at the art of understanding how boys’ minds work; and that’s the same whether they’re ragamuffins or private schoolboys. We very quickly take them into our affections, admire their bravery and insight, their kindness and generosity, and despise those who take advantage of them. The family is rich enough to have access to a villa, and the boys are distinctly posh, but attractively so, rather than irritatingly so. We never want them to suffer or be discriminated against for their wealth. And if anyone tries to do them down, we hope they get their just desserts!
Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the book is Daniel’s strong fraternal feelings towards little Manou. He’s prepared to be both mother and father to the boy, feed him, care for him, make sure he’s safe and comfortable before thinking about his own interests. He lets him sleep whilst he, Daniel, stays alert and awake; he protects him from bad news whilst allowing himself to worry about what to do next. “In Daniel’s mind had been the ghastly fear of having Manou torn away from him. He could imagine him all on his own, cut off from the warmth and love of his family which until now had always been his and which from now on Daniel alone must provide.”
When they later meet up with Steve and Benny, two boys who have a pretty similar relationship to Daniel and Manou, who are even wealthier, but are in a pickle distinctly of their own making, this goes to emphasise the book’s message of kindness and family protection, but not in a serious, po-faced manner. The four boys have a great deal of fun together and see in each other fellow human beings facing the same difficulties and decisions. They become one family unit themselves, never seeking to outdo or outwit the other. They make a charming and reassuring friendship group, positive role models for the young reader.
Absent for much of the book, though with his presence often felt, is the boys’ grandfather, known for his “movement orders” – precise instructions that have to be followed to the letter. It’s a bit of a family joke, but in fact, Grandfather is a complete control freak! But he means well, and is very kindly, and it says a lot that, despite every single plan going wrong in this book, the family still feel the need to cover up the mistakes and conceal the truth from the old man. As Berna reflects, when Manou doesn’t tell the truth about the flowers, “it wasn’t so very big a sin to have told this small lie. It was better than upsetting a good old man who cared so very much for his family. How could you blame him for wanting to arrange a family reunion as a celebration of his long life and his happy marriage…” Grandfather’s insistence on precision rubs off on Daniel. One of the first things we learn about Daniel is how he sticks ruthlessly to time; for instance: “at ten twenty-five he gave his hair one last flick” before heading out at the appointed hour of 10:30.
The frontispiece for the book includes a map of France and details the journey that the boys make from Paris to Chiberta. Unlike all other Berna books so far, this one is characterised by the accuracy and reality of all the places covered in their story. Often Berna suggests a real place by giving it a fictitious name that’s similar. But in this book, all the places are genuine. Not only the places; directions, forests, train tracks that split, even cafés and streets are all true. This helps give the book a sense of being something of a travelogue. If you wanted to, you too could follow the boys’ intrepid journey. Avenue Marceau, Rue Quincampois, Les Halles, Rue St Martin, Rue de Bretagne in Paris are all real; on the journey to Chiberta, so are Pranzac, where the lorry crashes, Angouleme, Barbezieux, Labouheyre, Morcenx, Dax, and of course, Bayonne, Biarritz and Chiberta itself. There’s an almost “On The Road” feel to the night-time lorry journey with Peyrol, and the various odd characters that the boys encounter on their route south almost feel like it’s a kind of autobiographical journey. You can bet your bottom dollar that Berna covered that route himself.
The title of the book rather misrepresents the actual content of the book. The Cross-Eyed Man of the title isn’t really the source of a mystery – we know it’s the Interpol superintendent, Barboton, and it doesn’t take much guesswork to realise he’s on the track of the boys because there’s going to be a reward. Manou squints whenever he sees him, which today you might think is a little cruel to be taking the mickey out of someone for an affliction that isn’t their fault. But then, that’s often the case in a Berna book, and to be fair, children can be cruel! When he’s eventually confronted by Uncle Jérôme, he’s treated pretty harshly; but then, he doesn’t help himself either. But the actions of Barboton are of limited interest in comparison with the adventure that the boys – and as a result, we – enjoy. Berna’s original title, the Pilgrims of Chiberta, sums up the story much more accurately, and emphasises the long cross-country journey our heroes undertake, like a children’s picaresque novel as Daniel and Manou survive from scrape to scrape in different parts of the country.
There are a few moments of comedy in the book – largely slapstick and physical humour – primarily, the journey in the car with the young driver who’s just passed his test and can’t wait to take his car out on the road as fast as possible; and the fête at Labouheyre, where people skim up a greasy pole only to be pecked at by an angry goose. But both those moments of comedy highlight a slightly uncomfortable difference between what’s acceptable today and what worked well in 1958. The wacky driver casts care to the wind and hurtles through birds and animals without a thought for their wellbeing – and the kids find it hysterically funny. The goose is tied with its feet together suspended at the top of the pole in an experience that it must have found terrifying and painful – no wonder the poor thing kept on nipping at people’s ankles. Even the scene at the end of the book, where the residents of the Villa Etchola turn on the stray cats and basically terrorise them into leaving the garden, feels pretty distasteful today.
There are a few other signs of the times, which are interesting to note. Whenever Daniel tried to place a telephone call it always involved the operator, and limited time to speak, and weak connections, which seems so extraordinary in our days of easy communication. The manager at the Hotel is shocked at the slow transmission of a telegram – he’d be shocked to know they no longer exist! The story is also set against a surprise strike by the train drivers; France has a long history of strikes and in 1958 things would have been just as volatile in the employment sector as they are today.
If the book lacks anything, in comparison with Berna’s previous books, it’s a sense of gang mentality and loyalty. The two sets of boys hardly constitute a gang, although they do work together in a similar way to Gaby and Charloun’s teams. But there are interesting observations and behaviour patterns that come to the fore, particularly towards the end of the book; for instance, Steve’s anxiety at seeing his father again, and Daniel’s disagreement with what Steve and Benny did, by running off and scaring their parents.
I was very interested by Daniel’s experience of being conned into buying false tickets for the train. Precisely the same thing happened to me when I went to Paris for a brief holiday in 1985. Look bewildered at a train station and some helpful chap will always come along and “help you” with the ticket buying – pocketing the full amount and giving you a worthless ticket in return. It’s obviously a Parisien thing. Apart from that, the book doesn’t have too many serious moments or themes that it tries to examine. It’s really just a fun adventure to get from Paris to Chiberta with hardly any money and no parental advice!
Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!
Chapter One – Grandfather Issues Movement Orders. We discover the smartly presented Daniel and well-behaved Manou dining at the Hotel Régina. Their presence gently amuses the other restaurateurs and their waiter gently teases them with his top-quality service. He’s even happy to provide Manou’s pet guinea-pig Patapon with some fresh lettuce leaves. We find out that the boys are waiting to be joined by other members of their family over the next few days.
Daniel re-reads his grandfather’s detailed instructions which they have clearly followed to the letter. After dinner, Daniel and Manou retire to bed, and Manou insists on Daniel giving him a bedtime story – something Grandfather Quint had predicted would be necessary. Unfortunately, it emerges that the grandparents are themselves delayed owing to having to stay behind for a medical appointment. Still, it won’t be a problem that the children will have to check in by themselves, just for one night. Surely? Anyway, Daniel has his instructions on how to meet up with his parents the next day, at the Gare St Lazare.
Chapter Two – Telephone Alarm. As planned, the boys get up at the appointed hour, and, nicely presented as ever, make their way to the Gare St. Lazare to meet the boat train from Le Havre. It was whilst talking to the florist from whom they bought a bunch of Parma violets to give to their mother that they discover that a sudden rail strike had been called. No trains were going out; a few were coming in.
In the absence of solid information, Daniel decided that their best course was to stay put and see if the train arrived. But come lunchtime they were hungry and took a taxi back to the Régina for a meal. They met the manager and he had good news for them. “The Passengers from the Armoric left Le Havre at eleven o’clock by road […] the first coaches should reach Paris at about three or four this afternoon.” Reassured, they ate, bought extra flowers (Manou had lost the violets) and awaited the arrival of their parents. But by five, they still hadn’t turned up. M. Hébert, the manager, was confused but was sure that there must be a sensible reason and he promised that Daniel and Manou would be well looked after whilst they were at the hotel.
To distract themselves, they went for a walk along the Seine. They returned to the hotel at dinner – still no parents. And whilst at dinner, Daniel overheard one of the waiters refer to them as “the orphans” which really upset him. Daniel decides he must ring his grandfather even though it will be late. But when he finally gets through to their hotel, he hears the news that they have checked out and taken the Strasbourg-Ventimiglia Express, as Uncle Jules and his family had been involved in a car accident. Nevertheless Grandfather had emphasised his decision that Daniel and Manou (and their parents) should stay in Paris and wait for further instructions. However, without their parents, Daniel can only panic.
Chapter Three – The Two Telegrams. The next morning, sure enough a telegram arrives for Daniel’s father from his grandfather – but he reads it anyway – confirming that Jules and Elvisa were slightly hurt in a crash, but their children are fine. His instructions are for the family to continue to Chiberta, and that Grandfather will join them in four or five days’ time. Daniel determines to step up to the mark and ensure that he and Manou get to Chiberta safely – although Hébert begs him not to spend too much time on the streets.
Whilst talking to a policeman at the station – and lying about being on their own in Paris – a young man spots the two boys, and after a quick hello and a flash of a camera light darts up the stairs and away. Daniel thinks nothing of it. Thinking on his feet, he goes to the Shipping Line offices and asks the clerk to confirm that his parents did actually take the Armoric to Le Havre. Daniel is mortified to discover that they disembarked in Southampton the day before instead. The shipping clerk suggests that Daniel leaves his address so that they can contact him if they hear anything more about his parents. “Quite unsuspecting, Daniel willingly told him.”
At the hotel another telegram awaits Daniel – although it was meant for his grandfather. It was from his father, saying that they won’t be able to come to Paris as planned and will meet them in Chiberta, they will fly direct to Biarritz. The news upsets Manou, making Daniel’s job even more difficult. Nevertheless, he convinces Hébert that it will be safe for him to let them go to Biarritz by a replacement coach service.
Meanwhile, the shipping clerk has seen a photo of the boys in the Europe-Soir newspaper. The comment reveals that one of the boys might be “Benny”. The clerk rings Interpol, where Inspector Barboton is very interested in the news. It’s clear that Daniel and Manou have been mistaken for another pair of kids, named Jackson-Villars, that might be in trouble with the law…
Chapter Four – The Cross-Eyed Man. Barboton arrives at the hotel and it is revealed that he has an “appalling squint”. He asks the hall porter if the Quint children are in the hotel and, after receiving a financial bribe, the porter tells them that they’ve gone to catch a coach. Barboton hot-foots it and espies the boys looking around, trying to find where to buy the tickets. A friendly chap approaches the boys and sells them the tickets, and then places them in a VIP queue. But when they get to the front, they discover that they’ve been conned. The 60 francs paid for tickets that are worthless.
They explain what’s happened to a policeman, who takes them to the local superintendent. The brusque, impatient man dismisses them curtly and they have to hang around in a temporary Reception Centre. Manou’s always on the look out for Barboton, and whenever he sees him, he squints back at him, much to the latter’s embarrassment.
A couple of fellow travellers tell Daniel about the lorry drivers up at Place Beaubourg near Les Halles who are giving people lifts across the country in their lorries – probably won’t take any payment either. When the cops are distracted by some other people, Daniel and Manou make a break for it – much to the superintendent’s fury. He too believes them to be the Jackson-Villars children.
Chapter Five – Place Beaubourg. It’s only when Daniel and Manou eventually ask a newspaper vendor where Place Beaubourg is that they discover it’s a made up name for where the lorry drivers all park up their vehicles. No wonder they couldn’t find it! When they get there the couple they met earlier directed them to the Café Charlot, where the lorry drivers get given their jobs. Daniel speaks to Madame Julie, whilst Manou entertains the lorry drivers with a performance from Patapon.
A few police turn up and unexpectedly ask a few questions of the drivers, and peer under a few tarpaulins. It’s obvious that they are looking for the boys, believing them to be the Jackson-Villars family. Madame Julie shows them the article in the Europe-Soir. Steve and Benny Jackson-Villars had run away from their wealthy home in Chantilly. Everyone is on the lookout for them. Daniel and Manou have been caught up in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. Julie suggests they tell the police that, but Daniel thinks that’s a guarantee that he and Manou will be split up.
The locals treat the brothers well and they have a good meal, and all Daniel’s attempts to pay are rebuffed. Eventually they meet an elderly driver, Peyrol, who is prepared to take them as far as Bordeaux in his lorry, Theophilus. He challenges them to deny they are the Jackson-Villars boys, but it turns out that Peyrol knows Grandfather Quint from business deals way back when. Shortly they set off into the night, and just as they’re leaving, the lorry lights flash on a prowler – and it’s the cross-eyed man.
Chapter Six – The Crash. Peyrol drives to the Thomasson Works at Bagneaux to collect the load. Then, with Manou asleep and Daniel fighting tiredness, they hit the road south towards Tours. Peyrol notices the sharp beam from the vehicle who’s been behind him ever since they left Bagneaux. He stops, and the yellow beams of a taxi drive past. Then they set up for an all-nighter via Orleans and Chatellerault. At a police stop, the officers find the boys but Peyrol says they’re his nephews. Back on the road, Peyrol is being followed again. This time he makes a sudden devious move off the road and the taxi behind him drives on. But it’s clearly becoming a problem.
Come morning, and there’s another, fuller roadblock. Another driver advises Peyrol to get rid of his passengers and suggests an alternative route via Angouleme. Daniel feels guilty and offers to get out of the truck, but Peyrol is having none of it, enjoying the adventure himself. Driving through the night and into the morning and all is going well until… there’s something wrong with the lorry. The brakes are failing. They’re going faster and losing control. Then….crash!
The lorry is on its side and its passengers and driver crawl out. Relatively unharmed, but the same can’t be said for Theophilus. Chassis split in two, axles broken, bonnet squashed, tyres blown. The local police will be there soon, so Peyrol suggests – orders, in fact – that the boys walk on to Angouleme and try to catch a coach there.
Chapter Seven – The Bone-Shaker. Walking into Pranzac, the boys chance upon some ladies waiting at a bus stop. The bus from Montbron was coming in, they squeezed on board and left for Angouleme. Daniel goes off to find information about future coaches and when he comes back he is horrified to find that the Cross-eyed man is standing next to Manou. Daniel charges at him with a rugby tackle. Shocked, the man protests but Daniel is furious. “You keep away from us! […] If I find you hanging around again, I promise you’ll be sorry for it!”
The boys find a pleasant, quiet spot and finish off the rest of Peyrol’s sandwiches. An older teenager appears, exhausted, from a long bike ride. Daniel offers him some lemonade, and after a brief chat, the teenager says they can have his bike – as his behind’s too red raw! So now the boys have an old bone-shaker of a bike. They prepare it as best as they can for the long cycle ahead.
Twenty miles later, beyond Barbezieux, and they’re really struggling, but they make a game of it and push themselves as much as they can. By the time they reach Bordeaux in the evening, the bike is in several pieces – but it got them there! After some free and very rustic soup, they spent the night sleeping in some straw.
Chapter Eight – Bastille Day. Fireworks wake the boys up, and Daniel realises it’s Bastille Day. A quick wash in the river, then it’s on to a café for morning chocolate and a phone call through to the Villa Etchola in the hope of catching either an uncle or the housekeeper. But there’s no reply. The Cross-Eyed Man is still there though, watching them, much to the boys’ irritation.
And then, in an instant, the two storylines cross over as Daniel overhears two other boys talking. They start to chat together and then he realises… “You wouldn’t be the Jackson-Villars boys, would you?” Shortly they’re all howling with laughter as Daniel explains how everyone thinks they are Steve and Benny, and Steve explains why he and his brother are on the run – as a protest against how the family is going to be divided up once their parents separate – Steve and his father will be in New York, while Benny and his mother will be in some other far flung location.
Daniel suggests Steve and Benny accompany Manou and him to Chiberta. After all, the police are looking for two boys, not four. Daniel sends a telegram to Steve and Benny’s parents on their behalf, apologising for running away and emphasising how much they love them. Then they blow Steve’s remaining 20 francs on lunch – still under the watchful eyes of the Cross-Eyed Man.
After lunch they continue to walk towards Bayonne, and eventually they strike it lucky with a man who will give all four boys a lift in his car. He’s a young man, and it looks like this is his first car – and his first passengers, so he’s very excited at the prospect of the journey. However, he’s just passed his test – having failed ten times before. Is this going to be the car journey from Hell?
Chapter Nine – The Empty Train. It is for Daniel! The others shriek with excitement as the young driver breaks the speed limit and barely notices the road at all. Daniel does appreciate the way the miles to Bayonne are getting shorter though! And the local wildlife had better beware as the driver doesn’t care about them either. Naturally, the car ends up hitting a bank and dislodging a headlight. Back on the road, terrifying cows, and then one of the tyres blows. Back on the road, the driver wrecks a music and dance festival and is finally – FINALLY! – stopped by two police officers, who issue him with a summons.
Unsurprisingly, the car needs to cool down. Undeterred, the driver does his best to get it started again – and then realises he needs the boys to push him into a jump start. It’s so successful that the car roars off – leaving the boys (with their luggage, fortunately) behind. The car might have got them to Chiberta – but they also might have died in the process.
They walk as far as Labouheyre, a market town which is en fête for Bastille Day and the boys join in all the sideshows and races. One of the stalls features a greasy pole but if you climb to the top you can claim one of the food prizes. Daniel has his eye on the ham, but the second person to attempt the climb gets there and chooses that prize. Steve decides to have a go. One of the prizes at the top is a live goose who likes to peck at anyone who gets close – and that’s precisely what happens to Steve, and down he comes, without a prize. Daniel, however, wins the day with his attempt, bringing down the pole as well as the dazed goose. But what to do with the bird? A restaurateur suggests swapping it for a meal for four in his restaurant. Done! And for their bed that night, Manou spots an empty train in its sidings. The boys all get in and spread out amongst the first-class compartments. Unexpected luxury!
Chapter Ten – Blast-off. Daniel wakes up from a funny dream where all his family are journeying to Chiberta on an exclusive train. But what does he see when he wakes up? The train they slept on is moving! Whilst they were sleeping it was brought into service. What are they going to do when the ticket collector asks for their tickets? They decide to keep the blinds down and hope not to be noticed. It turns out that they weren’t the only stowaways, and a number of people get off the train when it stops a mile or so from Bayonne – including the Cross Eyed Man!
They’ve got just enough coins to get the bus to Chiberta. Thrilled finally to arrive there, they make their way to the Villa Etchola. There’s no one else there yet, but Mme Bégou the housekeeper spots them and invites the boys in for some breakfast. Later on, whilst the boys are relaxing in the garden, the cross-eyed man makes another appearance. Daniel can’t take any more of this. But before he causes a scene, Steve shows him an article in the local paper that Mme Bégou left behind. The reward for finding the Jackson-Villars boys is now fifty thousand francs. Daniel decides to telegram Steve and Benny’s parents so that no one else can claim the reward.
The first family member to arrive is Uncle Jérôme, who decided to stay with friends in Bordeaux. When the boys explain their adventure to him he is most impressed. And now he also has to think what to do about the cross-eyed snooper, Barboton. He gets out his elephant gun in order to fire a warning shot. But first he gives Barboton the chance to move on. Barboton feigns deafness – but he hears the gunshot all right! And quick as a flash he’s on his bike and dashes off.
Next to arrive, just before dinner, are Pascal and Lucy. During the evening they reveal that Jules and his family are perfectly well. But how to deal with Grandfather, who will be mortified to discover that his movement orders came to nothing? Pascal and Lucy also don’t want him to know about their night in London! Daniel says that he won’t keep the fifty thousand francs, but wants to give it to the one person who suffered as a result of helping them – M. Peyrol.
Chapter Eleven – Happy Days. All’s well at the Villa Etchola as the family have some childish fun in their new environment. A telegram announces the arrival of Steve and Benny’s father by air that evening. This makes Steve anxious.
Taxis from the station bring Granny and Grandfather, Jules and Elvisa, and their two children. Grandfather insists on knowing that all his instructions were followed meticulously, and the whole family dutifully lies to him in agreement! Grandfather wants to know who Steve and Benny are – and they tell him they are schoolfriends of Daniel. Some wild cats break into the garden in the hope of eating Patapon but the family scare them off – Jérôme with his gun, the others with a hose of soaking water.
When the Jackson-Villars arrive, Grandfather recognises Steve and Benny’s mother, an attractive woman who used to be a film star. The father presents Daniel with the cheque, which he accepts on behalf of Peyrol. Jackson-Villars asks Daniel if he thinks Steve and Benny did the right thing by running away. ““No”, Daniel replied, unprompted. “I think children have better ways of making their protest just as strongly. It was bad luck Steve chose the worst way he possibly could. You can blame his Irish blood. It makes him do things on the spur of the moment.””
The book ends with Grandfather agreeing the purchase of three bottles of fine champagne to celebrate. And he suggests writing out a movement order to get them. “”No!” his three sons yelled with one voice, raising imploring arms to heaven.”
To sum up;The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man is an exciting, humorous adventure story that demonstrates care for younger family members and the ability of boys to become friends unexpectedly. As is often the case with Berna, there are few slightly worrying aspects – specifically cruelty or callousness to animals being a source of humour; but it is a product of its time. It’s a light, fun book to read, pacey and exciting. I am, though, still perplexed at how Daniel proposes to get the money to Peyrol – I don’t think they exchanged addresses, and Facebook didn’t exist in those days! If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Champion, which has never been translated into English. After that came La Grande Alerte, translated into English as Flood Warning. I remember this as being a gripping and sometimes frightening adventure. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.
In which we meet Charloun and his gang, who try to raise money in any way they can to support elderly people who had lost their homes in a fire; and at the same time become a thorn in the flesh of the greedy Town Clerk Monsieur Amoretti!
The Knights of King Midas was first published in 1958 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Millionnaires en herbe, which translates literally as Millionaires in Grass, with illustrations by Brian Wildsmith. Wildsmith is considered one of the great children’s books Illustrators, winning the 1962 Kate Greenaway Award for British Children’s Book Illustration; he lived from 1930 to 2016. As “The Knights of King Midas”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1961, and by Puffin Books in 1964. Like the previous Puffin editions, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the first Puffin edition, printed in 1964, bearing the price 3/6.
In the first two books we met Gaby and his gang; and in Magpie Corner we met Frederick; older, and more of a loner. The Knights of King Midas introduces us to another bunch of French ragamuffins, Charloun and his gang, living in the more glamorous town of Port-Biou, set in the French Riviera; Berna gently mocks the children’s Provençal accents when he notes they pronounce Coucoulin’s name as Coucouleeen. There is no such place as Port-Biou but it obviously borrows from Port-Bou on the Pyrenean coast; at one stage Berna places it as between Marseilles and Menton, and he also points out that fish caught at Port-Biou are sent to the hotels of Bandol and Sanary, two coastal resorts between Marseilles and Toulon.
Whereas Berna’s earlier books were set against either the grim and poverty-stricken Louvigny, or the manual labour of a petrol station, this book opens with a bucolic theme – stag-hunting; although that’s no less hard work, and provides an excuse for the gang to rush about noisily imitating hounds. But this rural environment feels much more positive than his previous urban settings. At first, the children’s apparent bloodlust about the stag seems cruel to our modern eyes (but then, children are cruel!) with the enjoyment of cornering the animal (“the brute”) and endangering its life (“he’s making straight for the rocks on the Pointe. What a joke if he goes over the edge!”) But once we realise they’re trailing a donkey, and have been for the past ten months, and they always make sure the donkey is safe and unharmed after their games, suddenly they seem much more childlike and playful.
There are eleven members in Charloun’s gang, plus the twelfth; unseen, in the form of the famous Mistral wind, that occasionally helps them. It’s a sign of the times that the children can take advantage of the countryside setting to decorate their boat with wildflowers picked from an island. Today, of course, that would be totally unacceptable – we’re always told not to pick the flowers! But in 1958 things were different, and there was no shortage of wildflowers. The open-air countryside aspect of this book extends out into the water too. The third chapter contains a thrilling but also strangely restful description of a fishing trip out in a boat, the boys relaxing on board until a fish bites then it’s full activity until it’s caught.
There is an fascinating portrayal of the rough (although loving) corporal punishment handed out in those days. For example, we see Amoretti attempt to kick Charloun in the seat of his pants. Wouldn’t be allowed today, of course! When she saw his dirty shorts, Angel’s mother “rewarded his carelessness with a sound slap”. Such was parenting in the late 50s. Mlle Blanc is fond of her schoolchildren and exercises her discipline in more subtle ways. Berna describes the gang thus: “the eleven of them shared a birthright which meant more in her [Mlle Blanc’s] eyes than all the virtues – whatever happened, they were never bored.”
As usual, Berna gets to the heart of what it’s like to be a member of a gang. Mlle Blanc understands that for the gang to bond together firmly, they need to have an enemy. It had been Piston the donkey – it was to become Amoretti. In this book we also see what it’s like to be on the outside of a gang: “Mademoiselle Blanc was only sorry to see how closed Charloun and his friends kept their small circle. Doudou had been expelled for cowardice two months before and they had kept their number at the awkward figure of eleven. Mademoiselle Blanc had a twelfth up her sleeve – Philippe Vial, who was bored to death because no one would have anything to do with him.” It’s a class-based decision to exclude him from their gang; he’s seen as a posh Parisian, a firm outsider, and they want nothing to do with him.
There’s also a horrendous undercurrent of sexism; when the gang decide which six of their number will be part of the Blue Danube crew, they choose “the two prettiest girls”. Ah well – as Maurice Chevalier would have said, thank heavens for little girls. When Charloun is considering which members of the gang have contributed the most towards acquiring the funds, he doesn’t count the girls. “The girls had had bright ideas and they had helped in a thousand different ways, but they were not so free as the boys to pull off the big bits of business and so that sort of thing could not be expected of them.”
Nevertheless, this is a charming book of true altruism. The children use their skills as gang members, both collectively and individually, to raise as much money as they can in order to help people less fortunate than themselves. None of them holds back, none keeps their resources to themself, none puts their own fortune above the others. As Philippe’s grandfather lawyer observes: “the children concerned combine healthy common sense with a lunatic logic. They’ve understood that you should never take anything, or give anything, without putting in a little of the small change of life which no one can see but which gives things their real worth – loving kindness.”
By so doing, they also defeat Amoretti, a somewhat pantomime villain character, who embodies greed and bullying. Like Gaby’s gang in the first two books, this is a gang that you, the reader, would really like to join. All the way through, the children benefit from the kindness and the wisdom of Mademoiselle Blanc, who subtly guides them to success, and who, too, is a beneficiary of the children’s experiences, appreciating their generosity and joining in with their innocent happiness, which you sense will nourish both her and them in the years to come.
As usual, Berna – through his translator – can sometimes come up with some beautiful lines. I loved the description of the sea at the beginning of Chapter Three, where Pastourelle and Cadusse are fondly and reflectively looking out at the water. “In the distance, the sleepy sea was streaked with glittering points of light that slowly snaked its surface as the current moved them. At regular intervals a gentle swell would lift the fifty boats moored to the jetty and would die away with a cool plop against the harbour wall.” It’s a description that appeals both to your sight and your hearing.
In Berna’s first two books, poverty was tangible in both the gang and their local environment. In Magpie Corner, there was much more money around, but it was derived from hard work and crime. In The Knights of King Midas, things are much more relaxed. “Port-Biou was paradise enough, and, rich or poor, the children did not worry about money”. The Vial family are particularly comfortable and well-off, and fortunately, innately generous. The local traders are happy to pay for a good fish supply, for example; the regatta, the quiz show, the scrap merchant are all wealthy sources that the children can easily tap into. Perhaps this level of creature comfort – albeit that some of the parents have to scrimp and save to get by – enables the children to be altruistic and generous. They don’t need the resources for themselves. This book also has less micky-taking, name-calling, cruel nicknaming than Berna’s earlier works. If there was one attribute that marks this book out, it’s probably simple kindness.
As in all of Berna’s books that we’ve looked at so far, the memory of the Second World War still lingers on in the environment. When Angel gets a dirty bottom from sitting on his stone on the beach, the dirt turns out to be rust because his stone is the top of a 12-ton cupola from the wrecked USS Massachusetts, bombarded on the day of the Allied Landings.
For a book with a number of subtle nuances – for example, the suggestion of a growing relationship between Philippe and Miqué, which Charloun simply can’t see, and which is never further touched on – there are admittedly some very clunky plot developments, no more extraordinary than Philippe’s unexpected success on a TV quiz show – although Angel’s discovery of valuable wreckage on a beach also takes the biscuit. Perhaps you have to suspend disbelief in this book more than in Berna’s previous books; but it’s written in such a winning style that you’re prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt all the way through.
Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!
Chapter One – Big Game. Berna introduces us to the gang. Charloun, Rigolo and Miqué are going off to follow the stag; en route they meet Norine, Angel, Titin, Sandrine and Frisquet. Rouqui, Coucoulin and Rosette are missing, but Charloun expects they will join them on the stag hunt. The younger members pretend to be hounds, barking excitedly, whilst Charloun takes charge with his hunting horn, calling the pack to order. It soon emerges that it’s not a stag they’re hunting, but Piston the donkey.
Having lost the trail, a twelve-year-old boy emerges from the pinewood where the gang had located Piston. He wanders over to where Piston was standing munching a branch of wood and starts talking to the donkey. At that moment, the Mistral howls up the road and frightens Piston, so that he charges at the boy; but the boy is too quick and makes his escape. The noise this produced alerts Miqué and her make-believe hounds to resume the hunt.
But events get the better of them. Coucoulin notices a trickle of grey smoke come puffing out from the bushes. Boldly, Rigolo, Sandrine and Rouqui join him to beat out the fire with their cudgels but it’s too much for them. Charloun gives the order to “run to the shanties” and “warn the Mohicans”, but they’re too late. The fire had already engulfed the first shanty, the Pastourelles’, and all the shanty residents had rushed outside with a few possessions, trying to put out the flames with a small supply of water – and the children help in this endeavour.
Eventually three firemen arrive from Port-Biou but there isn’t much left for them to save. Unfortunately, town clerk Monsieur Amoretti overhears Madame Escoffier, one of the shanty residents, accuse the children of having caused the fire by their games. Amoretti cuffs Charloun in punishment. But it’s Miqué who realises the seriousness of this accusation and runs off to tell Mademoiselle Blanc, the schoolmistress; and the two of them go off to tackle Amoretti.
Chapter Two – The Mohicans’ Encampment. On her arrival Mlle Blanc wastes no time in establishing the innocence of the children, and accuses Amoretti of making up the story about the children causing the fire – she tells him that if he won’t stop accusing the children, she’ll accuse him in public – which would be believed because he’s always wanted to get rid of the shanty houses, home to the Mohicans – so called, because it sounds like La Mouilllecanne, the name of a little reeded-up local estuary. The firemen go into the burnt-out forest but there’s no sign of Piston, dead or alive. Charloun wants to give Amoretti a piece of his mind but Mlle Blanc talks him out of it.
Fifteen elderly people, now homeless, gather outside the Escoffiers’ cottage – the one house not destroyed. Amoretti pretends to be sympathetic – although for years there had been interest in converting the land to a holiday park or to preserve the fishing village. M. Cardusse blames Amoretti and the council for not clearing the land properly – they were powerless to protect it against the fierce Mistral. Their only hope is temporary accommodation at the schoolhouse until Casteran, the builder, can construct something for them. Charloun suspects there’ll be a back-hander in it for Amoretti.
Charloun discovers that Miqué thought she saw an additional person in the forest – presumably the boy described in the first chapter. But that’s nothing to worry about now – the main thing is for them to do all they can to help the Mohicans. Charloun orders everyone to empty their pockets – and between them they can muster five hundred and sixty francs, “barely enough to buy a small joint of beef! How much poorer can you get!” sighs Charloun. But what’s his plan? To support the Mohicans in a financial fight against Amoretti and the Council – even though many of the gang didn’t really believe they could achieve anything.
And we learn about Philippe Vial – a boy at school who’s clearly not a gang member, and is undoubtedly the boy who was also lurking in the forest when the fire started. He’s been ostracised because he is a posh outsider from Paris, and not very talkative. His mother tells him that the Mohicans’ land is ripe for development. “Philippe was appalled. He did not grasp it at all, but the fire, which had started by being rather a joke, now swelled to the size of a disaster.” Does that mean Philippe started the fire?
As the family walk around the shanties, which have been haphazardly re-erected with the help of some kindly folk, Monsieur Vial explains the history of the encampment, how it was let on a peppercorn rent, but how it’s now much more valuable and a grand hotel – The Residence, Port-Biou – has already been designed – by M. Vial himself. Amoretti and the Council will be ready to pounce. As Philippe discovers more and more how vulnerable the pensioners now are, he becomes very quiet and guiltily furtive.
Chapter Three – Rouqui’s Bouillabaisse. Pastourelle and Cadusse gaze out across the sea and regret that they may have to move away – they’ll miss this fantastic sight. Rouqui and Frisquet ask Pastourelle if they can take his boat – the Lion des Mers – out into the water to catch some fish. At first it looked as though they wouldn’t be lucky, but then the boys landed a bass, “a luxury piece” according to Rouqui. More fish are caught – perch, wrasse, dorado, even a sea-scorpion. All the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse.
Meanwhile Charloun and other gang members stage a public conversation, alerting eavesdroppers to the fact that there would be a splendid bouillabaisse at the Admiral hotel tonight. It has the desired effect; several unexpected table bookings result in the chef panicking. Lo and behold, Rouqui and Frisquet turn up at the hotel with two baskets of freshly caught fish and a demand for 5,000 francs. The chef reluctantly agrees this high price, and the boys are ecstatic. That’s the first lot of money to donate to the Mohicans.
7,850 francs is the total for the day; however, it’s a long way from the million francs that Charloun has worked out is needed to save the Mohicans from the workhouse. Coucoulin carelessly confesses that he has a valuable stamp in his collection – worth 80,000 francs. Sell it! cry the gang members but Coucoulin has other ideas.
Amoretti is unnerved by the sight of the gang, walking near the shanties. Could they ruin his plan to acquire the land?
Chapter Four – The British Guiana Two Cents, Green.Mlle Blanc is impressed with the children’s efforts to raise a million francs, although she cannot believe they will achieve it. Poor Coucoulin has become the target of a series of mental bullying tactics to try to get him to sell the stamp; but he’s as obstinate as Piston. However, when his sister prays that he sells the stamp, he gives in, saying that he will use the proceeds to buy real estate.
Coucoulin offers the stamp to M. Bodin, the dealer. He’s very impressed with the stamp and offers him the choice of 90,000 francs for it, or exchanging it for 120,000 francs worth of other stamps – even 130,000 francs’ worth. A very generous offer that stops Coucoulin in his tracks. But Coucoulin insists on the cash, and just as Bodin is slowly counting it out, Coucoulin’s grandfather, Toussaint, takes the cash from under his nose. Hysterical, Coucoulin shames Toussaint into giving him back the money.
True to his word, Coucoulin brings the money to Charloun and the rest of the gang, who celebrate wildly. With so much cash now collected, the gang decide to take turns to guard it carefully. Frisquet suggests that they give themselves a name – and they go with Coucoulin’s suggestion of the Order of the Knights of King Midas – owing to the gang’s golden touch.
The chapter ends with a dramatic confrontation between Miqué and Philippe; her virtually accusing him of starting the fire, him neither denying nor admitting it, but suspecting that it would be through Miqué that he might become accepted by the gang.
Chapter Five – The Gondoliers of the Blue Danube. News of the Order started to spread like wildfire, and quickly Charloun and the gang members were teased by the adults of Port-Biou as Knights and Millionaires. Their next plan was to win the prize in regatta race in Bandol, and Charloun gave the Yacht Club Commodore the crew name, The Gondoliers of the Blue Danube. However, M. Pastourelle won’t lend the gang the use of his rowing boat – the distance is too far and the whole project is too dangerous.
However, Rigolo’s father is the local boat-builder, and knows of a few ownerless craft that the gang could use. All that was left was for them to find gondoliers’ costumes and to make the Saint-Anatole boat presentable. But the gang couldn’t compete with the rich boat owners of Bandol. Mlle Blanc suggests they decorate the boat with flowers – picked by their own hands. So Rouqui and Frisquet take the Lion des Mers out to the Ile de Biou and discover plenty of beautiful blue delphiniums that will recreate the “Blue Danube” look.
Charloun and Rigolo were to be navigator and engineer, together with the two prettiest girls, Miqué and Sandrine, and the two youngest gang members, Norine and Angel. First the boys constructed some wooden shapes to fix to the boat so that it looks like a gondola. The others decide to pick the flowers at the very last moment so that they look as fresh as possible. They get a great haul late at night, and Miqué spends the whole time silently gazing and reflecting. “I’ll never ever see anything so lovely” she sighs; and Charloun misunderstands her because he is a boy without a developed sense of empathy.
Mlle Blanc is accompanied by Philippe Vial as they watch the blue boat coasting into place. With the crew members dressed in white, the boat is a true picture. And despite stiff competition from more luxury and richly appointed craft, the 100,000 francs prize was awarded to the Gondoliers. No one can believe it, least of all the children. And as the Saint-Anatole journeyed back to Port-Biou, the sea became awash with blue delphiniums.
Chapter Six – The Troubadours of Queen Joan. As Amoretti was reading about the children’s success in the local newspaper, Mlle Blanc had cashed the 100,000 franc cheque and had given the cash to the children. The bag that contains the loot is getting bigger all the time, and she warns them about keeping the money like that, but having a growing pile of cash is all part of the fun for the children. Amoretti wants to find out how the children are spending the money but he can’t find anything out; but the children learn that they must be careful with the money.
Meanwhile Mlle Blanc is still encouraging the gang members to allow Philippe to join them. He’d be an asset, she is sure; and would help to bring more money into the fund. Miqué alone had seen him at the site of the fire, and had never breathed a word to anyone. But now she saw the time was right to question him: ““First tell me who set fire to the pine wood”, she said abruptly, “and then we’ll see.” Philippe took his chance, while he had it. With Mademoiselle Blanc to back him up he was sure he could win her over. “I’d like to. But promise to keep it to yourself. No one will believe it but…” “All right.” Philippe put a friendly arm around Miqué’s shoulder and whispered something in her ear. Mademoiselle Blanc looked away. A broad grin spread slowly over Miqué’s face. She was thirteen, Philippe a few months older, and it was natural that she should see the funny side even of a disaster. When Philippe finished, she was doubled up with laughter that brought tears to her eyes.””
Philippe tells Miqué that a film company is making a movie in nearby La Cadière and are looking for extras – they need a boy and they pay well. Quick as a flash Miqué rushes off to tell the others. Rigolo cycles off to get the advert and the gang realise the best person for the job is Titin. Titin’s not so sure though, especially as the advert describes the role as donkey boy. Nevertheless, the next morning Titin approaches Piston’s owner, M. Mazet, to ask if he can borrow his donkey. Mazet has no objections – but Piston probably won’t like it. However, Titin treats Piston so gently that the donkey obliges him with a gentle obedience, and much to M. Mazet’s surprise, Piston walks to La Cadière with Titin on his back.
Just before their destination they chance upon a huge number of donkeys and boys, all hoping to be chosen for the role. Piston doesn’t like that one bit and charges into the crowd, demanding that the rest of the pay attention to him. The director is instantly taken with Titin and Piston and gives them the role. Titin delivers his words perfectly, but just before the actress playing the Queen can reply, Piston lets out a mighty bray and everyone falls apart laughing – except the Queen, who is furious at being upstaged by a donkey. But the scene works, the writer writes the braying into his script and the Queen has to take her cue from Piston. The scene takes three days to shoot and Titin is paid 2875 francs an hour – 70,000 francs in all.
Chapter Seven – The Treasure Vanishes.On a lovely day, Rouqui is catching fish, and Sandrine and Miqué are chatting with Mlle Blanc. Miqué is looking after the money, and her bag, which is blue, contains 295,000 francs. When Charloun tallies up the income for the day – only 800 francs – he asks Miqué for the bag so he can add the new cash to the rest. But, horror of horrors, the girl realises she has left her bag somewhere. Devastated, she bursts into tears. Charloun is furious. He jumps on Rigolo’s bike and heads towards the bench in front of the Café Vieux which is where she must have left it. He returns, dejected, without the money. The bag wasn’t there and M. Vieux had seen nothing.
The children split up to hunt for the bag – but no luck. Charloun thinks their only hope is that someone has taken the bag to lost property at the town hall – but that would alert Amoretti and that could be disastrous. Angel goes off to ask. Strangely, Miqué seems calm – with almost a smile on her lips. When Angel gets to the lost property office he’s deliberately vague but Amoretti is highly suspicious – if there’s money in the bag, there is an implication that Angel must have stolen it. But they go through every blue item in the lost property office and Angel insists that it isn’t any of them. Once Angel has gone, Amoretti gives orders to the local policeman Garidan and Cucq to search the village for a blue bag. He wants to get to the money first.
However, to the rescue comes Philippe. Despite being told in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t welcome, he reveals that he found the bag and couldn’t let anyone know about it earlier because his family had visitors and he couldn’t leave. He hadn’t touched a penny of the contents – and the gang members are enormously relieved! But what are they to do about Philippe? Should he now become a gang member? They put it to a vote – and it’s almost unanimous that he should join. And, after allowing them to waste a lot of time, they let the two policemen know that the missing bag has been found – but not without some teasing!
Chapter Eight – Big Business. The gang realise that their growing wealth has relied on some lucky breaks. Where will the next lucky break come from? One day Angel wore his best clean white shorts, and when he got home, the seat was absolutely filthy – enough for his mother to give him a slap (wouldn’t be allowed today!) The next time he wears those shorts, they’re covered with rust stains again – and this time she “smacked him on the spot”. Mme Despardieu complains to Charloun but he can’t understand how Angel is getting his shorts dirty.
Charloun and Rigolo determine to get to the bottom of the cause; and they quickly discover that it’s because Angel sits on a particular stone outside the emplacement where the gang usually meet. Rigolo investigates the stone further and discovers something potentially precious. They cover the stone with sand and the next day ask Mlle Blanc for some advice. She thinks they might have a right to ownership, but it needs to be discussed with the Harbour Board – and Rigolo’s father used to work for them at the time of the invasion. Investigations continue; M. Cabbasole and Mlle Blanc engage a lawyer to draw up a legal statement.
Charloun and Rigolo were nowhere to be seen during the Bastille Day celebrations; but just as Amoretti was congratulating himself on a nice profit from the firework display, the boys surprise him with possible information about a treasure trove. Only enough information to infuriate him of course! With Cucq on their trail, they return to dangle more information in front of Amoretti – and then turn and flee at the last moment.
Finally they tell Amoretti what they have discovered – the twelve ton steel cupola salvaged from the USS Massachusetts bombarded by the Germans on the day of the Allied Landings. Amoretti is determined that he should not have to share the value with the children – but they’ve already instructed the scrap merchant Cabassole to act for them. And their share of the loot turns out to be 405,000 francs. Charloun concludes that they have ten days left to raise 300,000 francs – and it’s only Philippe who hasn’t pulled his weight yet.
Chapter Nine – Double and Quits. The days march on, and the gang continue to raise what money they can from odd jobs, fishing and the like. They target their efforts on a grand jumble sale but, although it raises 30,000 francs, it’s not enough. At 250,000 francs short, Miqué has the bright idea to approach the contractor to see if they can knock something off the quotation for the work.
Meanwhile, much to everyone’s surprise, Philippe turns up – on a TV quiz show! And the top prize is – a million francs. The gang all watch as one by one all Philippe’s opponents are eliminated, owing to his extraordinary general knowledge and maths ability. He wins 512,000 francs – and then is asked if he’s like to double it to 1,024,000. The gang is on tenterhooks whilst he decides – and he chooses to double! But Philippe doesn’t let them down – and is the proud winner of over a million francs.
Chapter Ten – Sprung up like Mushrooms. The gang arrive at M. Casteran’s office with all the money to instruct Casteran to build the properties for the Mohicans to move into. But he cannot do it until the end of August – and this is not quick enough to save the Mohicans from the meanness of Amoretti. However, he is moved by little Norine’s gift of three francs and does his best to order the immediate construction of bungalows for the Mohicans.
At 8pm Casteran’s men move in to start the construction work. Pastourelle can’t fathom how they were instructed or who’s going to pay for it. Casteran tells them it’s being taken care of; and only then do the gang fully appreciate the extent of their achievement. Overnight all the new bungalows are erected, and the Mohicans are free to move into their new accommodation.
But no one tells Amoretti! He wakes up the next morning, thrilled that he will finally be able to take possession of the Mohicans’ land. Arriving with his policemen in tow, he cannot believe his eyes when he gets there. Left looking both foolish and tricked, Amoretti’s plans have come to nothing.
The spare money from the fund is divided out among the Mohicans, save for a little reserve that Mlle Blanc uses to host a huge celebratory meal and party. And Philippe is able to reveal the identity of who it was that started the fire – Piston! He had stolen a charred branch from a bonfire that some locals had used to cook fish – and he had walked it back in his mouth and the burning end had set light to the shanties.
The book ends with Mlle Blanc in a reflective mood. “Her joy was tinged with sadness. Charloun, mad as he was, had held to his word and had won through; now it was all over so soon! As Miqué had said one evening not long ago, “I shall never, ever see anything so lovely.” In those simple words she had given expression to the everlasting discontent of those who seek perfection, the wish of children who live their golden age and want the world to return to it. “No!” Mademoiselle Blanc told herself. “Never have regrets. These happy times will always live in their memories and be there to cheer them, even when life is at its darkest.”
To sum up; The Knights of King Midas is full of kindness, generosity, understanding and compassion; but the opposition embodied by the character of Amoretti is rather unsubtle and two-dimensional. Despite its occasional faults it’s a very enjoyable read with a big feelgood factor; and there are some amusing insights into practices that are no longer acceptable – hitting your children and discriminating against girls come to mind! If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Les Pèlerins de Chiberta, which wasn’t translated until seven years later in 1965, as The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man, but as we’re taking Berna’s books in the order he wrote them, rather than the year they were published in English, we’ll take that book next. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.
In which we meet Frederick, whose father runs the new petrol station at Magpie Corner. One day a stranger enters their midst; who is he, and what is his interest in the station and in Frederick’s father? And why is his father always so surly to his devoted son? All will be revealed in this engrossing and heartfelt tale of contraband and family relationships.
Magpie Corner was first published in 1957 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Carrefour de la Pie, which translates literally as Magpie Crossroads, with illustrations by G. de Sainte-Croix. As Magpie Corner, it was first published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 1966, a full nine years after its original French edition. Unlike the previous Puffin editions, which were translated by John Buchanan-Brown, this book was translated by Helen Woodyatt and apart from the frontispiece and dust jacket, contains no other illustrations. My own copy of the book is the second hardback impression, printed in 1967, bearing the price 18/-. Helen Woodyatt’s only other translation in print, as far as I can see, is a 1964 translation of Marguerite Thiebold’s Pascal and the Tramp.
Leaving behind Gaby and his gang from the first two books, in their rundown suburb of Louvigny, we’re now in the peaceful village of La Rua, which actually exists in the eastern region of France, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, approximately 70 km north of the provincial capital, Besançon. The book begins with an account of how the children have to keep the cows from straying on to the busy main road nearby; that would be the D1, which links the communes of Vitrey-sur-Mance and Membrey. However, Berna also tells us that a by-pass connects La Rua with Rouvray, via the grasslands of Chamarande, in the direction of Mâcon, which places the story to the south of Paris. Furthermore, Berna points out that Madame Paulin no longer has to travel to Tournus or Pont de Vaux to trade, both of which are very close to Mâcon, further complicating the issue! I think this is one of the situations where Berna has chosen real places but has nevertheless created a mystery and fantasy about them.
The book centres on Frederick; and it’s a very powerful, moving portrait of a kind-hearted, resilient boy, who’s a bit of a loner. He’s ignored and unloved by his father, and, as a result, all-consumed by suspicion as his life lacks reassurance. In his other works we’ve seen so far, Berna excels at showing the strength that can be gained from being a member of a gang. Frederick is as far away from having a gang to be a member of as you can possibly get. He seems to be a fish out of water; friends with the two girls, but estranged from the company of other boys. At the age of fifteen, Frederick is much older than the average age of Gaby’s gang. Whilst they’re looking for escapades to pass their spare time, Frederick is much more focussed on what he’s trying to achieve. He’s like a Rottweiler on the track of a criminal, and he’s not going to let him escape. Gaby’s gang spend the whole time laughing; but there’s not much laughter in Frederick’s life. There’s no sense of early romance between him and either Colette or Fanny, unlike the charming developing relationship between the much younger Marion and Fernand.
Rather than playing, Frederick now turns to work for a release from his worries. Vehicles have become his friend: he can tell a six cylinder diesel from its thundery rumble, and Berna makes this association stronger by his sensuous description of petrol fumes; “the all-pervading smell of petrol obliterated the natural scent of the newly mown hay. But the children liked it.” He’s never more at home when tinkering with engines and watching a master at work; and the more he works on the petrol station, and the more exposure he has to the other drivers, the more his confidence grows. You sense it’s a very different boy who closes the book than the one who opens it.
This is an exciting, devious, complicated little tale, with double-crossing villains and double-crossing heroes. Today, it would probably not be acceptable to have a book, ostensibly written for children, where smoking featured so heavily. But this was France in 1957; Langlais doesn’t flinch an inch when his son starts smoking in front of him. There’s not one word of criticism or negativity connected with the cigarettes; no asides about health issues, it’s just a mundane, 100% acceptable, routine. In fact, when Frederick teases Morden towards the end of the book, sniffing at the cigarette smoke, he says “it smells good, doesn’t it?” As well as all that smoking, there are plenty of trips to the café to enjoy some of Uncle Armand’s rosé. Pushing bad habits on children? Perhaps that’s how we would see it from the 21st century. Little surprise, perhaps, that this book has been largely forgotten – which is a shame, because it’s a superb tale, beautifully written.
Like The Street Musician, Magpie Corner is a reflective, atmospheric book, with some superb writing and intense examination of the hero’s motives and emotions. Berna – through his translator – can sometimes come up with some beautiful lines. Towards the end of the book, when Jeremy and Frederick have set a trap of which Langlais is unaware, but will benefit from, he expresses the father’s anxiety: “Monsieur Langlais was the most vulnerable. He was rather like a tethered goat put out unawares to tempt the tiger, and ignorant of the body of men ready to help him.”
Unlike the previous books, this is a much more male-oriented story. All the significant players – Frederick, his father, Jeremy, the speed-cops, the postman, Morden, and the two people in the 4CV, are all men. Colette and Fanny play a lesser role in Frederick’s life as the book progresses. And Mme Paulin and Frederick’s mother barely feature at all. I feel this increases the book’s sense of maturity and seriousness; definitely a book written for fifteen-year-old boys.
I’ve noticed how Berna likes to give nicknames to some of his characters – not always affectionately. In A Hundred Million Francs, one of the henchmen gets called “Ugly”. In The Street Musician, the tramp is called Spare-A-Copper, the nutseller is Monkeynuts, and they call the accordionist, M. Anatole, “The Phantom”. In Magpie Corner, the nicknames are becoming a little more unkind; right from the start Frederick refers to Jeremy as “The Hunchback”, and Colette calls the two 4 CV men, “Duckbeak” and “Clownface”. Maybe it’s true that children, particularly in those days, gave uncomplimentary nicknames to adults they didn’t like, but looking back on it from our viewpoint, it feels not only childish, but rather unpleasant. I’ll keep a watch on Berna’s use of nicknames in future books.
In Berna’s other books so far, poverty had always played a tangible role in the stories and in the day to day lives of the gang. In Magpie Corner, there is no such poverty. The Petrol Station and the Café Restaurant are both doing extremely good business and there is no shortage of money to provide the characters a comfortable life. The poverty is of a different kind; the poor quality of the relationship between Frederick and his father, and the lack of communication and support that the father should provide. However, it’s also interesting the extent to which people will put themselves out for free cigarettes – thronging the roads with their cars on the look-out. Although today cigarettes are taxed so highly that they are a luxury item, back in 1957 I would have thought they would have been relatively cheap; so maybe there isn’t as much money in circulation in the wider society of this book.
As in Berna’s previous books, the memory of the Second World War still lingers on in the environment. When Jeremy asks Frederick about the abandoned quarry at Senozan, Frederick describes it as the “cemetery for scrap iron […] there are something like two thousand wrecks there. Vans, private cars, tractors, as well as all the German and American military machines from 1944, tanks and even armoured cars. It’s an enormous pile and the council can’t get rid of it.” The treasure of the Lost Legion goes on to play a significant role in the book.
A couple of the plot twists are written a little heavy-handedly. The book suffers from one awfully heavy moment of obvious exposition, when Frederick overhears the conversation of the men from the 4 CV; almost farcical in the way it gave telegraphed the plot. The big surprise that’s kept right to the very end should also, I feel, have been written with a little more sophistication, so that it emerged naturally from conversation. The big surprise is also, I can’t help but think, very far-fetched and unlikely; but it does allow the book to finish on a high.
Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!
Chapter One introduces us to the Paulin family; Mme Paulin runs The Magpie Inn on Magpie Corner; a renovated barn which she turned into an eight-bedroomed café, restaurant and mini-hotel. Aunt Guitte is head chef, Uncle Armand runs the bar, and her two daughters, Colette and Fanny, do their best to keep an eye on the cows, as the family still ran a small farm too. On the other side of the road, a new SICA petrol station had been built, and the Langlais family moved in to run it. Fifteen-year-old Frederick Langlais quickly became friends with the Paulin girls: “he was very friendly and they liked him at once. He was different from the village boys of La Rua and Rouvray, who were mostly pretty rough and rowdy.”
Whilst watching the cars, Frederick, Colette and Fanny get talking to Claud and Poulard, a couple of speed cops (“we’re not cops, we’re guardians of the highway”), taking a break. Claud notices M. Langlais working at the petrol station and mutters to himself, “I’m sure I’ve seen that chap somewhere before,” which intrigues and slightly disturbs Frederick, the only person to hear him. Frederick is always concerned about his father’s wellbeing. “You’ve only got to look at him. He seems to be obsessed by some awful dread. And it’s only since we came here. I’ve got the impression that he’s expecting something terrible to happen.” Where the girls are curious about all the people that go by, Frederick just watches and worries about his father – “the man who had become a stranger to him”.
Policeman Claud asks Frederick about his father: “he used to be a long-distance lorry driver […] he had his left shoulder badly smashed in an accident. For six months he had to have some marvellous electric treatment which works miracles. His shoulder is quite all right now, but he can’t drive any more. So someone found him this job, which is far less tiring.” When Frederick goes back to the petrol station at the end of the afternoon, his father isn’t welcoming, but simply gives him jobs to do. “Monsieur Langlais avoided his son as much as possible. Frederick’s blind admiration and devotion embarrassed him. The child had an unusually sympathetic nature which he longed to show to his father, but he was too young to know how to express himself and only succeeded in irritating him.”
We learn that Frederick doesn’t believe that his father was away for six months in an American hospital. “Frederick’s vague suspicions were strengthened after his father came back. He suddenly appeared without any warning at the little villa they had taken in Choisy le Roi. He insisted on leaving again that very day. He pulled down their suitcases from the top of the wardrobe and told them to pack quickly and be ready to go as soon as darkness fell. He said he must go into the country to convalesce. The whole affair seemed suspiciously like a flight from something or someone.”
“One morning by chance he happened to see his father taking a shower. The ex-lorry driver had two perfectly good shoulder blades and no trace of a scar anywhere.” Not driving; but not injured; and away for six months… what could it be?
Chapter Two sees a ramshackled old Citroen lorry pull up for petrol just as Frederick and the girls are returning home from school. The lorry looks like a hearse, held together with wire. Its owner, whom Frederick christens “the hunchback” because of a swelling on his back, tells M. Langlais that he’s looking for a job; he’s a mechanic, and he could help Langlais provide a breakdown service. They go to the Magpie Inn to discuss it, whilst leaving the petrol pumps to Frederick. When they emerge, slightly worse for wear after the consumption of plenty of rosé, it’s agreed; M. Jeremy is to have the spare room and will give Langlais 40% of everything he makes.
Jeremy certainly brings Langlais out of his shell; there had never been so much laughter in the house, and between them they set up the new workshop in under an hour. “Frederick turned back clenching his fists. For the last six months he had been trying to be a friend and companion to his father. And now this wretched hunchback had stepped into his place with no difficulty at all. An hour later they all met for dinner; father, mother, son and the irrepressible visitor. Monsieur Jeremy was very polite and talkative; he told some funny stories and when he raised his glass to his lips he crooked his little finger in the grandest possible manner. Both Monsieur Langlais and his wife were much impressed by so much elegance […] but the boy kept his head down and concentrated on his food. He felt deeply suspicious and offended.”
The worst moment for Frederick is when Jeremy remarks to Langlais, “your boy doesn’t talk much” and Langlais replies “he’s fifteen years old, and children of that age are all more or less idiots.” Frederick is furious. But he’s also determined that Jeremy shouldn’t do anything to make his father’s life worse.
Chapter Three, and Jeremy is already making his first sale to an old farmer from Uchizy with a clapped-out old truck, whom he convinces to part with two hundred francs in exchange for a valve overhaul and a general check-over. Even Frederick, watching at a distance, admires his sales technique.
Frederick’s suspicions about Jeremy are raised again with the news that Colette saw him sitting outside and smoking at 2am. (You’re not allowed to smoke on petrol forecourts nowadays!) But, true enough, Jeremy does the repairs on the truck, and he and Langlais get on like a house on fire; although Frederick still regrets: “it won’t make any difference to me […] whatever he’s like with other people, he never seems to care for me.”
Just as Frederick is about to go sit by the river with the girls, his father tells him he wants him to help Jeremy with his work. Frederick sees it as an opportunity to find out what Jeremy is really like, so he changes into overalls , goes into the workshop, and receives his first lesson in vehicle mechanics. Against his better judgment, Frederick is impressed, and actually enjoys the work. Jeremy says he can come back any time for more jobs – and he’d get paid at the proper rate. But the mood sours when Jeremy asks Frederick more detailed questions about his father and the business; Frederick determines not to give anything away.
However, going back to the job in hand, Frederick feels more at ease: “Frederick had forgotten all about Colette and Fanny and the arrangements for a swim in the cool water of the Saône. His thoughts were concentrated on helping to put together the pieces of this jig-saw puzzle as he listened enthralled to the mechanic’s professional talk. He was able to be quite useful and he felt entirely happy and engrossed. No one had ever before talked to him in such a friendly way or allowed him to take part in such serious work. For the first time in his life he was experiencing the pleasure of working in harmony with a man of professional ability. His father had never given him that satisfaction.” A few hours later and Frederick and Jeremy are laughing away together. They take the repaired truck out of the workshop, and Langlais watches them. “Jeremy gave the thumbs-up sign and accelerated the engine. Monsieur Langlais came up to them to speak to the mechanic but did not pay the slightest attention to his son, whose beaming oil-covered face was leaning out of the door longing for some sign of recognition.”
Frederick feels he may come to terms with Jeremy’s presence “in a way no longer possible with his own father.” At dinner, Jeremy compliments Frederick on his work, but his father gives him no praise, only saying that he was to assist Jeremy for two hours every morning – which Frederick felt was going to eat into the fun of the holidays too much. When he tells Colette and Fanny, they’re disappointed. But Frederick has a thought about why Jeremy has suddenly turned up. “I wonder if he could have come here because of the cemetery […] the one at Senozan, the car scrapheap.” People had been visiting it recently, because of a newspaper article, “about the treasure of the Lost Legion. This had been a pathetic army formed by a rabble of Asiatics who had trailed pitifully after the routed Wehrmacht. In September 1944 one battalion of this comic opera army had vanished completely, apparently wiped out somewhere between Mâcon and Tournus”. Maybe Jeremy is hunting for this treasure?
Meanwhile, Langlais decides to stay open in the evenings, to see if the trade is worthwhile. Late at night, Frederick watches through his window to see his father working on the pumps, with Jeremy watching him in the shadows; “I’m watching over my father, who is letting himself be dominated by a horrible stranger.”
At 2am, the rumble of a lorry awakens Frederick. “The hunchback emerged suddenly into the light from the pumps. The driver leaned over again, and Frederick heard him say, “That’s good! You got the place all right? […] “Don’t talk here!” [Jeremy] said in a low voice. “The kid’s bedroom’s just there. Come over here! […] their low murmurs were unintelligible”. Jeremy filled the lorry with fifty litres of petrol and then it drove off. But Frederick is absolutely convinced that something is not right. All he knows is the name on the side of a lorry – SOBITO International Road Transport.
Chapter Four The next morning Frederick simply doesn’t know what to do. Fanny explains that SOBITO is a new company with four lorries working regular routes, and they are next due to drive past Magpie Corner on Monday night. Should they watch out for it? Maybe there’s enmity between SOBITO and other hauliers over the monopoly of routes.
Langlois notes with excitement how many litres of heavy were sold overnight from pump five. ““That SOBITO lorry alone took fifty litres,” said Frederick in a gently but very clear voice.” Frederick explains how he watched the transaction; Jeremy is obviously shocked. Whilst the two men enjoy a drink and a laugh at the Café opposite, Frederick beseeches his mother to tell the truth about what really happened to his father. “Your father killed someone with his lorry […] it wasn’t his fault, I’m certain, but he was sent to prison for six months for that one wretched stroke of bad luck, which cost the life of an unknown man. A thing like that leaves its mark on a man, and your father is very sensitive. Don’t mention it to him – ever!”
After this revelation, Frederick feels he understands his father better; no longer frightened of him, but sympathetic. But he can’t resist quickly telling his father not to trust Jeremy – and his father calls him out for his words: “I’m not going to take any advice from a child like you. You are far too young to criticise grown-up people!”
Later, chatting with Traffic Cop Claud, Frederick admits he’s concerned about the presence of Jeremy in their lives. He goes on to tell Claud about what he’s just discovered about his father’s accident, and Claud tells him of an accident involving a cyclist the previous year, where a lorry driver took the blame for the dead cyclist’s bad road behaviour. Was it the same accident?
Chapter Five Life is busy at Magpie Corner. Jeremy has lots of customers and appreciates it when Frederick lends a hand – and, despite himself, Frederick always enjoys working alongside an expert. But when pushed, he has a full-on argument with Jeremy, accusing him of wanting to know where the family money is kept. Frederick discovers that Jeremy has been told about his father’s accident. Jeremy says he wants to be friends with Frederick but the boy is having none of it. Jeremy flies into a rage: “””I dare you to repeat to your father everything you have said to me!” he shouted, stamping his foot. He hates the sight of you, you silly little ass, and well you know it!””
Meanwhile, two sinister men had left their 4CV for repair, and were returning back to the café. One asks Uncle Arnaud for “cheaper” cigarettes. “”I do occasionally have a chance of getting a few packets free of duty for my regular customers,” he said peaceably. “But I don’t manage to keep them long, I don’t ask where they come from.” Are they Customs officers? Whatever, they convince Mme Paulin to let them have a room for a couple of nights. Frederick’s suspicions are even further aroused. He sees them in an argument with Jeremy, but he’s not taken in – he thinks it’s a charade for his benefit.
On a whim, Frederick decides to go and hide at the quarry at Senozan, to keep a watch out for anything suspicious. And who does he spy? None other than the two men with the 4CV. Frederick overhears their conversation: “If the stuff really was here everyone would know about it. There are plenty of nosy parkers around. It’s not so easy to hide ten tons of cargo. Besides, no lorry could get along that track.” Then the other man: “Listen, Louis, do you know what I think? I think the boss is worried stiff. The must know he’ll never get his fifty million cigarettes back again.” Worst of all for Frederick, the men mention Langlais in respect of this crime. “Packets of Diamond and Princess have been in circulation the whole way along this main road. It’s pretty obvious, especially as Langlais is hiding himself so near here.”
Frederick decides it’s time for action. He searches all the tunnels and eventually finds a chamber which hides a second chamber – and at the end of it, he feels the wheel of a lorry…
Chapter Six sees Frederick speak directly to his father: “I know I’m only a kid, and probably not much good at anything. But I do want us to be friends again. Whatever it is that you have done doesn’t make any difference to me. After all, you are my father and I don’t want anyone to harm you, and they shan’t if I can stop them.” He can’t see his father’s reaction behind his dark glasses, but he hopes his message has hit home. Frederick also tells the girls about his adventure at the quarry – well, some of the details at least.
Later that night, Frederick comes down to talk to his father again. “Please listen! That hunchback is one of Monsieur Morden’s spies! […] We must go away at once Dad, We can find somewhere to go, it doesn’t matter where…” Langlais replies: “Yes, Frederick, I’ve known all along. I guessed it from the first moment when he was so keen to come and work here. But it was too late then to do anything about it. The moment they located me here I couldn’t move without involving us all, you, your mother and me, in a tragedy. So I tried to deceive him by playing his game. I let him spy into my private affairs so that he could see that I was only an ordinary sort of chap like thousands of others.”
At last Frederick and his father can talk freely between each other. Langlais understands and knows that his son is fully supportive of him, and Frederick is desperate to know more. Langlais doesn’t want to keep running and hiding for the rest of his life. He’s happy enough in their new position and wants to fight to keep it. But he confesses to his son that for years he drove Morden’s lorries knowing full well he was carrying contraband; but what could he do? His pregnant wife was delicate, his son was about to be born. He wanted to be able to provide for them as best he could. “As a matter of fact I never enjoyed one single moment of that ill-gotten comfort. It was poisoned by my sense of guilt, and my fear of being found out. When you were a little boy you used to ask innocent questions about my job – what sort of loads I carried, that sort of thing. And when I answered I found I was lying, lying to an innocent little boy. My life seemed to have become one big lie. I gradually became so ashamed that after a while I found myself avoiding you. It is natural for children to trust their parents and when you were about six you had a way of looking a me which made ashamed to think that I could deceive my wife and child so terribly.”
More revelations from Langlais. When he caused the death of the cyclist, he was accelerating away from rival smuggling gangs who would have stopped his lorry and taken control of his load. Langlais felt that if he accepted the blame and went to prison it would rid him of Morden and his illegal work for ever – but no. The contraband he was carrying at the time of the accident never came to light. Clearly, Jeremy and the 4CV men are working for Morden and trying to locate the stolen lorry and its goodies. So Langlais wants Frederick to keep an eye on Jeremy, and maybe take his mind off trying to find the contraband; Frederick suggests the girls will keep the 4 CV men out of harm’s way; which just leaves the SOBITO men.
So why, when Langlais finally goes to bed at 2am, is Frederick missing from his bedroom?
Chapter Seven Calas the postman arrives for a morning rosé at the Café and starts to brag about smoking both Diamond and Princess cigarettes – which just so happen to be the brands that were in Langlais’ lorry. He tells the 4CV men that they were just lying on the ground on the road from Chamarande that morning. Then two other men come in, also smoking the same brands. The 4CV men, whom Colette has nicknamed Duckbeak and Clownface, grow more unsettled and ask Uncle Armand for local countryside tips; Armand offers the services of the two girls to walk with the two men in the countryside (that wouldn’t happen today!!)
Frederick (who tells his father he just went for a walk the previous night) cheekily offers Jeremy a cigarette from his new packet of Diamonds. Jeremy is thunderstruck and is desperate to know where Frederick got them – and he tells the same story as the postman. Jeremy says: “I know people who would pay the earth to get their hands on a stock of these”, to which Frederick replies, “would they pay enough to let my father live in peace?”
Frederick asks Jeremy if he would like to live in the area for good. Jeremy concedes that it’s a good place, and that he was lucky to get on so well with his father. Later that day, Frederick spots Duckbeak and Clownface hiding in a taxi. Something’s going to happen soon, and, for once, it’s Jeremy who seems the most nervous.
Chapter Eight sees Frederick on a late-night rendezvous with Calas – down at the abandoned lorry in the quarry at Senozan. This is where Calas gets his endless supply of cigarettes, of course; and the only other person who knows about it is the driver, Young Charley, who won’t be happy until the whole stash has gone, and now never goes near the place. He unwittingly got involved in Morden’s contraband scam, and hadn’t a clue what to do with the lorry. It was Calas’ idea to hide it in Senozan.
Together they worked to fill two big sacks with cigarettes, but at this stage, what they did with them is a mystery. Frederick walks home at about 2am only to be discovered by his father. The two of them watch as a long-distance lorry accelerates towards the filling-station and knocks down all the pumps, and, without stopping, hurtles on to rejoin the main road and disappear. Langlais does his best to make the site safe, although Jeremy is reticent to help. When the police come, Frederick is able to give the number plate of the lorry – although he doesn’t mention it was the same lorry that called the previous week. Frederick also takes the opportunity to needle Jeremy once more, and he’s not happy about it.
Chapter Nine And we straightaway know what Frederick and Calas have done; as loads of people descend on the quarry to pick up hundreds of packets of cigarettes that are just lying on the ground. And, good news: SICA repaired the petrol pumps at 6am the next morning, so there was hardly any loss of trade. After some closer questioning by Frederick, he discovers that the lorry that is hidden in the quarry was not his father’s but another run by the same company – he confirms that the driver’s name was Charley.
Two men dressed in black check in to the Café for an overnight stay – and Uncle Armand is convinced they are customs officers. Over lunch Frederick realises that Jeremy has his own argument with the 4CV men – but he won’t say what it is. Perhaps, thinks Frederick, Jeremy can finally be trusted… However, Jeremy has devised a plan, and asks Frederick to provide him with one complete carton of cigarettes, containing five hundred packets of twenty. He won’t say why; but Frederick agrees. And then Jeremy drops a bombshell – Morden is coming to Magpie Corner tomorrow.
Another surprise – in conversation with traffic cop Claud, it emerges that they knew all along about the abandoned lorry and the plentiful supply of cigarettes, as Frederick watches him puffing away at a fresh pack of Diamonds. Claud invites Frederick to confess to the liberal scattering of packets a few days earlier – but he stays quiet. Nevertheless, Claud informs Frederick that he knows full well where the missing lorry is – safely parked out of harm’s way.
At night, Frederick has been true to his word and Jeremy divides up the cigarettes and stashes them all over the red 4CV; in the boot, behind the cushions, under the seats, in the door pockets. That done, Jeremy, Frederick and Calas drive around the village, dispensing cigarette packets everywhere.
Chapter Ten The by-pass is choked with motorists on the hunt for free cigarettes, some to smoke themselves, some to set up stalls to make a profit. Langlais is asked to see the police about a trivial matter, which leaves Frederick and Jeremy in charge of the big final scene. They were just serving some customers when a royal blue Jaguar pulls up at Pump Number One; Morden, his chauffeur and two other men. Morden wishes to see Langlais but Frederick explains he is with the police but will be back soon, maybe with some officers. Unimpressed with the sight of “his” cigarettes being shared out all over the place, they get out of the car and wait for Langlais to return, while Jeremy works on the Jaguar. Meanwhile the locals continue to smoke their hearts out.
Langlais tells Morden that he ought to leave whilst he can, but Morden is not in the mood to change his mind. Then Frederick bursts in and tells Morden it’s his Cherbourg lorry that is stuck locally and that, as no one came to claim it, for the last three days it’s been the property of Calas, the Postman. “”As for my father’s lorry,” went on Frederick, still perfectly calm, “I can’t say yet, because it’s in the hands of the traffic police and the Special Branch for suppression of smuggling.” Claud and Poulard arrive and confirm that the lorry Langlais was driving is currently being stored in Lille “in a shed behind the Customs Office!” Morden denies ownership of the vehicle; Claud confirms “for a cargo of that nature and tonnage […] counting the expenses, taxes, surcharges, compensation, damages and other indemnities claimed by the Customs, the Treasury and the State (all in algebraic progression, mind you), I should say our man would get a bill for about eight hundred million francs.”
On the road out to Rouvray, Morden and his men are stopped by Customs Officers – and five hundred cartons of Diamond cigarettes are found in the boot – the contraband that Jeremy had planted on them, when he was attending to the Jaguar.
Frederick confronts Jeremy with his suspicion that “it was you who planned that robbery of the two lorries in league with the drivers’ mates, wasn’t it? […] But it all went wrong because of my father and his accident. Klaus tried to rob you in his turn, and then young Charley lost his head. Monsieur Morden looked for his lorries all over France, and you were looking for them too on your own account. For a short while you hoped you could recover the Senozan one, but it was impossible for one man alone, and I got in your way.” Jeremy denies it, but we know Frederick is right.
One final revelation: the cyclist who died as a result of the accident, and the guilt for which Langlais has had to deal with for so long, had been dead six hours when the police arrived. So Langlais has been living with that guilt unnecessarily! It wasn’t him!
To sum up; Magpie Corner wasn’t translated until nine years after it was written, so, in the sequence of British publications of Berna’s works, it appears later and out of place, and I think has long been overlooked as a result. To my mind it’s a book of great atmosphere, considerable sadness; not a typical childhood funtime romp, but an examination of some of the darker sides of life. I really like it! If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Kangourou Volant, which was never translated into English. So we’ll skip that one so that the next in the Paul Berna Challenge is The Knights of King Midas, and once more we’re in the world of gangs; not Gaby and his friends, but Charloun and his gang, so there’s a whole new bunch of French youngsters to meet. I can’t remember much about it, so I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.
In which we meet Gaby and his gang again; whilst the toy horse from A Hundred Million Francs is out of action, they need to find a new adventure. One day Marion is asked to give one of her dogs to a blind man who plays the accordion on the street corner, and she gives him the beautiful Nanar, a dog with a bright yellow coat. However, when they next see the dog with the accordionist, it has changed colour – it is now a beautiful black dog. Why should that be? Gaby and the gang have to uncover the truth and it leads to much deeper things…
The Street Musician was first published in 1956 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Piano à bretelle, which translates as The Accordion, with illustrations by Pierre Dehay. As The Street Musician, it was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1960. As in the previous book, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown, and illustrated by Richard Kennedy. My own copy of the book is the first Puffin edition, printed in 1961, bearing the price 3/-.
Once again we’re in Louvigny, that very workaday railway town just outside Paris, with its grim industrial atmosphere and air of poverty. The same streets, the same cafés that featured in A Hundred Million Francs are all back in the story, as is Gaby’s gang, happy to leave their “gloomy school” every day at four. Also making a reappearance is Inspector Sinet, although with a markedly less important role in this book.
It strikes me that The Street Musician is a much more reflective, and much less action-packed, story than its predecessor. Although Gaby is still in charge, the growing maturity of the characters of Marion and Fernand is the one most significant development within the gang members. They have an awareness that they are the outsiders in the gang, and are occasionally made to feel insecure by the actions of the others. “I’ve noticed for some time that we aren’t exactly everybody’s favourites” Fernand tells Marion. Later, he buys her a brooch for a shilling at a fair, which she proudly wears – until she loses it, much to her annoyance. It’s a symbol of their special friendship; too young to be a romance, but it does set them apart from the rest of the group.
Poverty is still a tangible aspect to the story and to the gang. Considering they have so little, the purchase of the brooch is even more significant. But it creeps through in other parts of their lives. Gaby’s firework display at the end of the book amounts to nothing because he could only afford to buy cheap out-of-date stock. Most people throw toys or balls to their dog for them to play catch, but Berna points out that Marion throws stones for Fifi, because they are free.
1956 still wasn’t long after the end of the Second World War and its legacy still scars this townscape. The gang’s new headquarters is close to a commemorative plaque that remembers twelve Resistance men who had fallen before a firing squad; the wall still bears the marks of the bullets. The hidden street, Rue du Bout de l’An, that is an integral part of the solution in the story, was created by setting up checkpoints by the Germans at the entrances to their depots during the Occupation. A hole in a wall, through which Juan spied the Bollaerts’ place, was caused by a wartime bomb that had never been restored.
There are some further indications about the hostility and loneliness of the environment; the Rue des Estaffiers is described: “harridans with their hair in curlers turned to stare in hostility as they went on their way. An urchin accompanied them to the crossroads, heaping them with choice epithets that were not current in the Rue des Petits-Pauvres.” The local kids adopt a gang rivalry against Gaby’s gang, but they have the decency to respect Zidore’s scars – a hard reputation can often be helpful. And the loneliness of the environment is beautifully encapsulated by these following sentences after Marion has been moved by the sad sweetness of the accordion playing: “The throbbing air of the gipsy love song spent its enchantment despairingly on an empty landscape from which the very birds seemed to have flown. The last notes fell away into the silence around them.”
Berna – and by necessity, with his translator Buchanan-Brown – certainly had a way with words. Whilst there are few words and phrases that one would today certainly associate with the latent racism of the age, I don’t believe there is any cruelty or discrimination intended in the emotions of the book – far from it. I loved his description of when Tatave revives, after his accident at the beginning of the book, “groaning like a cow with stomach ache”. There’s a very funny description of Criquet’s mother: “Though Madame Lariqué was built on formidable lines she was as nippy as a centre forward”. And there’s a charming summation of the message of this book through the words of M. Douin: “don’t forget the one thing in life that really matters is the trouble we give ourselves in order to help other people”.
I loved the accounts of the younger kids and their relationship with insects and birds; Juan with his tame sparrow Picolo, Tatve and Zidore releasing may-bugs into the classroom for general disruption; it’s such an innocent era away from our modern times of social media and knife crime. And you have to admire Gaby’s sneaky way of shortening lessons by tampering with the clock! The children are not goody-two-shoes at all, they’re right little scamps – which only makes you want to be part of their gang even more. Berna’s gift of expressing children’s emotions – from hilarity to loneliness – is again the driving force behind the book.
Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!
Chapter One – The Red Lorry. Once again we meet Gaby’s gang, all ten of them crammed onto a bench in Théodore-Branque Square, with Tatave, the fattest, hanging off the end. Tatave has his arm in a home-made sling, showing off his noble wound; but the gang are having none of that, and they all swayed on the bench to knock him sideways onto the ground.
Tatave is not the only one to bear a wound. Mélie has a black eye and facial scratches; Berthe’s head was wrapped up in a turban bandage; Zidore has a swollen nose and legs covered with antiseptic. This is all because Tatave lost control of the headless horse toy as it thundered down the Rue des Petits-Pauvres and flew straight into the limbs of his friends. However, the horse fared worse, disintegrating into a hundred different pieces. So now they need something new to get their teeth into. Marion comes up with the wise words: “adventures only happen to people who take the trouble to look for them”. She suggests they roam the streets of Petit-Louvigny in an orderly fashion in an attempt to sniff out a new adventure. Gaby agrees, so it’s a plan.
Fernand Douin, quietly but sensibly, realises that the Théodore-Branque Square is the perfect place for people watching. He also realises that a big red lorry, with the name Bollaert written on the side, had come up the same road at the same time for the last three days. It was the fact that the driver stared at him when he braked at the crossroads that really made Fernand suspicious.
The driver’s name is Paul Pierce; he’s English and works with his brother James at Bollaert’s. Berna’s description of them is very entertaining: “they had the same long horsey jaw, the same florid complexion and they kept their neighbours at a truly British distance”. After he’s brought his lorry back to Bollaert’s yard, he has a word with the boss about the children hanging around in the Square. He knows they’re the kids who solved the Paris-Ventimiglia case, and suspects they might cause their operations a problem. Bollaert isn’t worried. But now our curiosity is piqued – what are they up to?
Chapter Two – Criquet and the Small Ad. Following Marion’s suggestion that they look for adventures, little Bonbon decides to follow the tramp, Spare-a-Copper. He watches him get money off people in the street, then dive into the Café Parisien for some refreshment, then emerge again, “much more peculiar” than before. The tramp confronts Bonbon, demanding to know why he’s following him; and when Bonbon tells him it’s to see if he gets into a Cadillac, Spare-a-Copper is dumbfounded and runs off. Maybe he is hiding some secret?
When the gang meet up to report back on their findings, no one has discovered anything remotely adventurous. Even following Inspector Sinet, as Tatave did, only led to observing the Inspector play cards with some friends. Criquet, however, has found an advert in the paper, by a disabled man looking for a dog. Marion thinks her dog Nanar would be perfect for the man, so she promises to take him round the next day.
Walking home, Fernand tells Marion about a strange experience he had earlier. He had investigated the (allegedly busy) offices of Bollaert’s to find it was as silent as the grave. No one around. So he crept around a little more – and found himself captured by Paul Pierce and Bollaert. They send him on his way with a boot up the backside, and Fernand flees. He and Marion decide to keep it to themselves, and, later on, at home, Fernand decides not to tell his father the details, even though he’s curious to know what his son has been up to.
Chapter Three – The Mysterious Monsieur Théo. Next day, Marion, accompanied by Zidore, Juan and Fernand, takes Nanar to the address in the advert, 58 rue des Estaffiers, to hand him over to the disabled man. However, someone very different from what they expected opens the door. Monsieur Théo isn’t disabled, and according to Zidore, looks like “a retired wrestler”. Uncertain whether to give him Nanar, Marion is won over by the man stating the dog is for a blind man. Once the children leave, Théo, together with his henchman Sacco, dye the dog black – and at the sound of a man playing the accordion, Nanar leaps to his feet and goes to join his new master.
Chapter Four – A Useful Lead. The gang decide that Nanar can be their spy in the enemy camp, and work out the best way to keep an eye on him – and the Bollaert employees at the same time. Gaby organises the watch on all exits of the Rue des Estaffiers like a military exercise. Sinet nearly catches them planning, but they fob him off with an excuse.
The gang man their stations, but because they’re not expecting a black dog, they don’t notice a man coming out of No 58 with Nanar. Bonbon even goes to stroke the dog, not realising it’s Nanar. When Monsieur Théo does emerge, without a dog; they track him nevertheless, and if Théo does notice them, he doesn’t acknowledge it. Then, most unexpectedly, he turns straight into the Louvigny Police Station. Not wishing to attract Sinet’s attention again, they give up their quest for the day, but even more suspicious about what Théo is getting up to.
Chapter Five – A Tune on the Accordion. Théo leaves the police station with a couple of men and leads them back to the rue des Estaffiers. Sacco returns with Nanar, and two other men, Popaul and Lofty, show up. Théo obviously has plans for them all but we don’t know what they are yet. The two men from the police station promise Théo that they’re not afraid of hard work, which pleases him enormously.
The gang agree to try again the next evening, but Marion and Fernand note that they can hear some distant music. It’s the accordionist, black dog by his side, mournfully playing his music for the housewives of the rue des Petits-Pauvres. Marion, of course, instantly recognises Nanar, although she doesn’t say anything at first. The accordionist pauses; then plays one last song, Pour deux sous d’amour, then packs his instrument away and just sits on his campstool. After a while, the peanut-seller, Monkeynuts, makes a surprise appearance; he walks up to the accordionist, and they (and Nanar) walk off towards the station. The mystery thickens.
Chapter Six – Monsieur Bollaert Takes Flight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the accordionist was last seen (by Juan and Criquet) walking into 58 rue des Estaffiers. At school the next afternoon, whilst the boys are trying to come to terms with the vagaries of the hypotenuse, they could hear the accordionist in the street outside, which made them itch to finish school early and follow him.
Keeping a sensible distance, they trail him to the rue de Paris, where Marion and Fernand, seated on a bench, pretend to do homework. At around 5pm, Monkeynuts appears, tries rather unsuccessfully to sell some nuts, then sits on the bench next to the children and complains about trade. They obediently sample his nuts. Then Amédée, the newspaper seller, appears, talks to the accordionist, who nods sagely and carries on playing. A delivery driver shows up with newspapers for Amédée to sell, Monkeynuts joins him and the driver for a brief conversation, and then, at Monkeynuts’ signal, the accordionist starts his walk with Nanar, back to No 58. All very mysterious.
Fernand’s shadowing takes him among the children of the neighbouring district, and he tries to ingratiate himself with them by playing football. When the game’s over, he’s still following the accordionist, who he realises has renamed Nanar as Toby – although Nanar seems perfectly happy with that. Fernand also begins to realise that the tunes the blind man plays have a certain pattern. He’d play the same selection, then pause a few minutes motionlessly; then play Pour deux sous d’amour. Fernand wonders if it’s some kind of code. Then he sees Paul Pierce driving one of the Bollaert vehicles down the rue Ponceau, his brakes screeching to a halt when he caught sight of the accordionist. Pierce doesn’t see Fernand; he just watches the blind man intently without noticing anything else. Then he starts up his lorry again and drives towards the station.
Whilst the other members of the gang pool their information, Pierce confronts Bollaert with the news that the blind man “is back”. Bollaert receives this news as though it were a punch to the stomach. He plans to move his family to a safe house that no one knows about.
Chapter Seven – The Detectives’ Club. Over the next fortnight, the gang members shadow the blind man, reporting back each evening to the other members of the Detectives’ Club at their new Headquarters by the gasworks wall – a location, which only ten years earlier, had been the site of the deaths of twelve Resistance men who had been shot by firing squad. Bonbon establishes that the blind man is called Monsieur Anatole, but everyone refers to him as The Phantom – which name the gang decide to adopt. From their observations, they conclude that Monkeynuts guides the Phantom out of Monsieur Théo’s every morning and returns him there every evening; he spends the mornings at the Place du Marché, and the afternoons at the bus depot, when he receives orders which would take him to some other seemingly random places. Zidore worked out that he earned just 95 francs for four hours’ playing.
One day Juan observes the Phantom start to play outside the Bollaert premises, with Paul Pierce and M. Bollaert watching the accordionist intently. Another man was also watching – a “gorilla of a man in a striped seamen’s sweatshirt” – presumed working for Théo. He too starts to shadow the Phantom. Spare-a-Copper also turns up, and Bonbon, as ever, takes the opportunity to taunt him. The Phantom plays Pour deux sous d’amour as usual.
The Phantom’s rapid reaction to receiving a fifty cents piece – swiped into his hand in a second – convinces Gaby and Zidore that he is only pretending to be blind, and can see perfectly well. With Théo’s new henchman at loose, the gang decide that they need to be in twos so that they can cover each other; but Marion decides she wants to see the blind man herself, alone.
Chapter Eight – Marion and the Blind Man. After attending to her appearance and making herself look very respectable, Marion goes out, telling her mother she has a date with the blind man. Gaby and the gang reported that the Phantom had gone in a different direction from usual, and Marion was straight away on his trail; keeping as quiet and hidden as possible, even telling the dog not to give the game away. At one stage, the Phantom takes off his dark glasses and Marion can see his face properly for the first time; “the empty pits that once had been his eyes” suggested to her that he genuinely was sightless.
But Marion gets too close. And, through whatever sensations the blind man felt, he grips her hand and demands to know why she had been following him. Quick as a flash she says it was so she could ask him to play Pour deux sous d’amour again. But as soon as he had let go of her, then the rough guy, in the seaman’s shirt, Sacco, appeared and also grips her by the neck.
Sacco tries to get information out of the Phantom about what Marion wanted but he doesn’t really give him any help; and with that, the two men start to head back to their headquarters. When Marion reports back, and confirms that the Phantom is indeed blind, and, in a sudden rush of emotion, she finds it hard to conceal her tears at the suspicions of the others about him. Gaby tries to smooth the waters with a joke along the lines that you can’t believe everything you see. Agreeing that in future they shouldn’t all jump to conclusions, they go for a swim and a bathe. And on the way home, Marion is disappointed to discover that she lost the brooch that Fernand had given her.
Chapter Nine – A Dangerous Game. As the heat of June frustrates the children in school, they continue to spend their spare time checking up on where the Phantom wanders. He’d started to go down the loneliest lane in the town, where he couldn’t possibly make any money. It just doesn’t make sense to Gaby and the gang.
One evening he stops outside 104 rue Cécile, with Zidore trailing him. Fernand asks him in, and they pore over their street map, much to the amusement of M. Douin, puffing away on his pipe. The map gives Fernand a clue as to the reason for the blind man’s wanderings. “Where we went wrong was right at the start when we thought the blind man acted as a messenger or a sort of secret agent for those people […] But if we accept the fact that, on the contrary, Monsieur Théo and his men are helping the Phantom, then it’s as plain as plain! […] The blind man has been really exploring this town for his own purposes.” Convinced that every time he plays Pour deux sous d’amour, he is in fact signalling to someone he can’t find, Fernand and Marion expect he will continue to play that song twenty times a day until he finds who or whatever it is he is seeking.
On this particular occasion, the blind man walks off, trailed by James Pierce, who himself was trailed by gang member Juan. M. Douin warns them all of the dangers of their undertaking but – of course – young people like that are frightened of nothing.
Chapter Ten – The Trap is Set. Juan continues his trail of James Pierce, and reports back as usual. Gaby splits the gang into two groups for the next day’s observations. On this particular Thursday all the town characters were out and about – Monkeynuts, Spare-a-Copper, even Inspector Sinet. Monkeynuts takes the Phantom by the shoulder and leads him on his round. It appears that what the children suspected was correct – that he will continue to do his rounds until he finds who or whatever it is responds to his playing.
Again it’s Juan who comes up trumps. He’s been observing Bollaert’s regular activity. Every evening Bollaert drives towards Petit-Louvigny and doesn’t come back. Juan scrambles through an overgrown neighbouring garden to discover that there is a hole in the wall, left by a bomb during the war, and through it he could see that the Bollaerts’ house is empty and it looks like it hasn’t been used for ages. So where does he go? Gaby sets up an elaborate observation schedule so that one of the group MUST see what happens.
Chapter Eleven – The Street They All Forgot. All eyes on M. Bollaert, then, as he finishes his working day, gets into his Renault, and drives off. But somewhere between the Rue de l’Aubépine and the Rue des Estaffiers, he goes missing. Gaby blames Bonbon for taking his eye off the ball and following Spare-a-Copper instead. But Bonbon has discovered the tramp’s hideout on Rue du Bout de l’An, and what do they find there? Bollaert’s Renault. It’s a quiet, gentle, green place to live and the children are entranced. Is that the mystery solved then? “No,” says Marion, “I’ll go and see Monsieur Théo tomorrow morning and I’ll tell him his blind man left one street out.”
Chapter Twelve – Marion in the Robbers’ Den. Using the excuse of asking how Nanar is getting on, Marion confronts Théo at his garden gate. She also starts to tell him about the blind man, when he invites her inside – and, confidently, she joins him. Explaining about all their trailing and discoveries, Théo is impressed and promises to tell all; starting with who is the “ogre” of this story – the blind man. Théo makes her promise she won’t tell any of the others about this yet, in case they accidentally ruin his plans. Théo describes his place as a kind of convalescent home for ex-prisoners. “Poverty and bad luck make more criminals than the desire for easy money” he says. The other men start to chip in with aspects of their stories; does the reader believe them? They agree that all the children will come back at 6pm that evening and help the blind man to leave his murky past behind him.
Chapter Thirteen – The Boy in the Garden. Six o’clock, and the gang watch Bollaert drive up. Then, when the blind man arrives, the children all go up to him. “You’ve found the right spot” says Marion, and the blind man simply nods in silence. Then, to the tune of Pour deux sous d’amour, they are amazed to see a little boy, maybe ten years old, emerge from behind the bushes and go right up to the gate. After a short period of tender quietness, Bollaert storms out of the house, rushes up to the boy, grabs him and gives him to his wife, who had also come out to see what was going on, and she takes the boy indoors. Bollaert then threatens the blind man with the police if he doesn’t go away. Gaby defends the blind man, but Bollaert goes on to talk about his criminal past, and one by one the children leave the Phantom’s side – all except Marion and Fernand. But, after due thought, they return to the blind man, to which Marion says, “I don’t hold it against you […] but if you hadn’t come back, Fernand and I would have left the gang.”
Marion also invites herself into Spare-a-Copper’s lair; he’d lived there for many years until the Bollaerts moved in a few months earlier. And he does confirm that the boy in the garden is the blind man’s son.
Chapter Fourteen – The Kidnapper. The blind man walks on, and it’s not long until Marion and Fernand realise that he is in great trouble. He had dropped the dog’s lead and was walking out into the traffic in what seems like an attempt to take his own life. Fortunately the children get to him in time and are able to walk him safely back to Monsieur Théo’s. But there they find out the truth about the blind man’s past. He used to kidnap children. And when he was finally found guilty, the court chose to deprive him of access to his own child. The boy’s mother died, and so he was adopted. One day in prison, the blind man (before he lost his sight) saw a newspaper that showed his son somewhere in Louvigny, and that’s how he knew to come back there to search for the boy. In a further act of divine retribution, the kidnapper actually went blind as a result of a chemical accident in prison – but he had always pretended to be blind as part of his kidnapping method. That’s bad karma for him.
It’s further revealed that the Pierce brothers were two lorry drivers who cornered the kidnapper on the run; and that the boy was very fond of his black dog, Toby, whom Nanar has been impersonating all this time. No wonder the Bollaerts were concerned when Pierce recognised the blind man in Louvigny. Théo requests that Marion and Fernand are discreet with this information, as there would be many people out there who would wish harm on the blind man. And the gang prevaricate and try to confuse Inspector Sinet when he questions them about the newspaper photo of the boy.
Chapter Fifteen – The Fourteenth of July. The case more or less solved, the blind man wasn’t seen on the streets anymore and the gang members miss him. Marion suggests to Théo that he should encourage the blind man to go back out and play his accordion in the best places, and raise the money to at least help pay for the dog’s enormous appetite.
As the summer grew warmer, those inhabitants of Louvigny who could afford to, went on their seaside holidays. Not the gang members, who had to make do with staying at home. Nostalgically promenading the route that the blind man used to take, Juan and Fernand notice that the Bollaert lorry garage is all shut up – presumably the Bollaerts and the Pierces had moved away for good. There was a big lottery win in the town, and Gaby and the gang took it upon themselves to try to work out who the winner was – but they are unsuccessful.
The gang pool their resources and buy fireworks to celebrate Bastille Day. Gaby’s plans of a big display in the Douins’ front garden come to nothing as the fireworks turn out to be cheap old stock. But just then, at 11pm, come the familiar accordion sounds…. And the children all danced to their friend’s instrument. Someone bought beer and lemonade and it grows into a street party, and it was very late when everyone disbanded.
And then Marion tells the blind man a big, but kindly lie – that his son was joining their gang. That seems to put his mind at ease. And last revelation of all – Spare-a-Copper is the big lottery winner; Bonbon sees him getting into that Cadillac that he had always suspected!
To sum up; it would have been a feat indeed if The Street Musician surpassed A Hundred Million Francs in either its quality or its sales, and I think it’s fair to say, it doesn’t. It’s slower, and more repetitive, and its moments of peril are briefer and less exciting than in its predecessor. That said, when the denouement starts to unfurl it’s still a very exciting and emotional read, and there is a very dark moment when Marion and Fernand prevent a suicide. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. I think it’s a while now before we next meet Gaby and his gang. Next in the Paul Berna Challenge is a book that is usually omitted from the list of his works translated into English, probably because it wasn’t translated until nearly ten years later – Magpie Corner, published in France in 1958. I remember this being a very strong and moving story, so I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.
In which Gaby and his gang enjoy playing with a broken toy horse, recklessly careering down the streets of Louvigny until one day it is stolen. They seek the help of Police Inspector Sinet to try to retrieve it. But the horse is stolen around the same time as a hundred million francs go missing from the Paris – Ventimiglia Express. A coincidence? Sinet and the gang get to the bottom of both crimes and find they are surprisingly linked….Be warned, there are spoilers, especially in the second part of this blog post where I offer you my chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book.
A Hundred Million Francs was first published in 1955 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Cheval sans Tête, with illustrations by Pierre Dehay. As A Hundred Million Francs, it was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1957. The literal translation, The Horse Without a Head, was its original title in the first American edition, published by Pantheon in 1958. It was translated by John Buchanan-Brown, who translated nearly all of Paul Berna’s books; and it featured illustrations by Richard Kennedy (1910-1989), who illustrated many notable children’s books and gained his apprenticeship at The Hogarth Press under Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
My own copy of the book, which you can see at the top of this page, is a Puffin edition, reprinted in 1970. As at the time Britain was nearing the change to decimal currency, the price on the back cover is shown as both 20p and 4/-. This is the only Paul Berna book in my possession that was bought new from a bookshop. I also had a new copy of The Clue of the Black Cat, but that was lost in the seas of time. All my other Bernas are second-hand (but largely in very good condition, I’m pleased to say!) The pages have gone a little brown, but pleasantly so; there’s no foxing, tears or other marks. I’ve looked after it well for the last 49 years!
This is the only book by Paul Berna to have been adapted for film; Disney made The Horse Without a Head: The 100,000,000 Franc Train Robbery in 1963, with a cast including Jean-Pierre Aumont, Herbert Lom, Leo McKern, Peter Butterworth, Lee Montague, Peter Vaughan and many other well-known actors. The script was by T. E. B. Clarke, who was responsible for many of the famous Ealing Comedies, such as Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob. Paul Berna hated the film! In an interview with him dated around 1984, by Roger Martin, he said (as translated by me) “I have only one regret about Le Cheval sans Tête, and that’s that it was brought to the cinema by Walt Disney. They made it into a gangster film, distorting it right from the opening scene where we see the mobsters preparing their hold-up of the train.”
The inspiration for the story came from two different sources. Firstly: Berna’s childhood. He grew up as part of a large family and he too had a headless horse that he used to play with as a child. Back to Monsieur Berna to tell us more: “There were seven of us. The three eldest were boys, the Big ones. Then came a girl and the three Little ones, including me. The Big ones used to try to steal our “headless horse” […] I was very familiar with this horse well since it was my favourite toy. I had to hide it from the cellar to prevent them from grabbing it!”
He went on to say that being part of a large family, where there were loads of arguments but nevertheless loads of fun, had a major impact on him, both personally and as a writer for young people. And you can really see the influence of having lots of people around him in his books. No one (that I’ve come across) conveys the thrills, tensions and that sense of belonging and loyalty that you get from being a member of a gang like Paul Berna does. And this is shown to superb effect in A Hundred Million Francs. But he also derived inspiration for writing the book having seen the film of Emil and the detectives, the original one, made in 1935. Although he had not read the novel, he said to himself: “Why not write crime novels for young people?”
The setting. Berna was notable for establishing very precise locations for his books. He would use places that he knew very well personally, such as Aix, Bordeaux, Marseille and Brittany, to give that personal touch, Other than that, he would pore over the most detailed maps he could find, extracting the names of tiny villages, or even street names to stimulate the imagination. Sometimes he would mix these detailed real locations with places that he made up from pure fantasy.
The setting for this book is the town of Louvigny, which exists as a suburb of Caen, in Normandy. However this Louvigny-Triage is a railway town on the route between Paris and Ventimiglia, on the northern Italian coast. We can assume that it is a suburb in to the south-west of Paris. Berna locates the story in and around the rue des Petits-Pauvres, the rue de la Vache Noire, the rue Cécile, and a ruined enclosure called the Clos Pecqueux. The roads and their connections are so intricately described that you could well imagine that this was a real location. But he confirmed in interview, “Louvigny-triage does not exist. It is not Villeneuve St Georges, as was believed, but an imaginary place that seems more real because of its disparate elements of typical working-class suburbs.”
Style. The book won the Salon de l’enfance Award for 1955. However, it also received some criticism at the time for its tone, and the use of slang. Berna defended himself against those criticisms, not believing the slang to be excessive. Personally, I think the tone is just right. Of course, there are a few slight anachronisms and moments where the book surprises you with its use of language, but much of that may be from John Buchanan-Brown’s translation. I understand that Paul Berna’s style in the original French (which I haven’t read) is actually quite adult and mature; and you never get the feeling that he is in any way talking down to his readers – this is a strength that makes it stand out against, say, the children’s crime stories of Enid Blyton, which were from a similar period.
Industrial gloom. It struck me how unsentimental Berna’s description of the railway town is, with its discarded ironwork, trucks, rails, sleepers, and so on. This is not a comfortable, middle-class setting. This is a bleak, industrial wasteland, where you have to pick your way through the machinery of the past to find a place to play. Berna recreates this harsh landscape with superb grit. When Roublot brings Fernand the toy train, the boy rejects it because “if we want trains, we’ve real ones on the tracks at the other side of the road”.
It’s not just the railway industry that has impacted the town. Marion explores Lilac Lane, near a coal-yard. “True, the coal-dust had killed off the original lilacs years ago, but their memory was preserved by the lane, a cut winding between high walls until it brought you to the disused saw-mill, whose empty and crumbling buildings backed on to the rue Cécile.” When the gang members walk home from the shed, we read that “they stumbled in the bomb-craters that five or six Allied air-raids had left in the Clos Pecqueux during the war.”
Even crime in this town is unglamorous. When Sinet is reflecting where the horse might have been hidden, he imagines it’s in “an old shed […] twenty bags of mouldy flour, a cask of rough wine, a roll of shoddy cloth, all sorts of wretched little things taken on the sly”.
But, as if to make up for all this gloom and poverty, there is humour. The slapstick comedy of the woeful crooks breaking into the building. The larking around of the gang members dressed in carnival outfits. The joking behaviour in the Magistrates’ Court. Once the crime has been solved, Inspector Sinet is frequently seen laughing along with the children. And even if those moments of comedy don’t actually make the reader laugh, we appreciate the fact that the characters are basically happy – and that makes us happy too.
Poverty. Berna was attracted to write about people in poverty. Again, from that 1980s interview, he observed: “I like these circles. When I was in military service, I discovered amazing people, peasants, workers, especially chtimis (people from the Nord – Pas de Calais areas of France), people relying on Assistance, desperately alone, who had to borrow six sous to buy tobacco. What they were looking for was a presence to break their inhuman isolation. Since then I have always had a great attraction for the poor.”
It’s obvious that the gang members themselves are from poor families. When they bring food for the gang to eat at the sawmill, it consists of eight potatoes and a stock cube; Criquet sneaks in one cigarette for the entire gang to share. When Marion invites the gang to her house for hot chocolate, before going out on an adventure, we find out that her mother “took these brigands’ visit very well, considering that she found they had eaten up her supply of bread for the weekend during the five minutes they had been there.” And Criquet cannot empty his pockets in front of the reporters, because “his mother had stitched them up to make his trousers last longer.”
Father Brissard says there are eleven in the gang – ten, plus “a boy from Nazareth”. I’m not sure to what extent that’s deadly serious or tongue in cheek. Certainly today I think it’s unlikely you’d share some religious message under those circumstances to a gang of ragamuffins. And one other totally anachronistic moment in the book comes when Marion organises the purchase of some cigars as a present for Sinet. Children allowed to purchase cigars? Only in France!
Gang mentality. What I love most about the book is its depiction of what it’s like to be a member of a gang, its subtle rules and etiquette, and the interdependent relationship between the gang members. As a rather isolated child, reading this book really made me crave being a member of a gang like Gaby’s. It’s sad how Marion and Fernand fear that the loss of the horse could lead to the break-up of the gang. They realise they need an additional purpose to meeting out of school, and not just the general reason of being friends or gang members. They have to be united through a separate reason – and playing with the horse is the perfect reason.
Berna shows several aspects of the gang mentality. The selflessness of individuals, bringing in a potato or a cigarette for everyone to share. There’s the loyalty shown by and to each individual member; for instance, when they all stand silently, intimidating Roublot at the market. They have the ability to all make each other laugh, such as when they dress up in the silly costumes and entertain each other with their inventive charades. They even take it in turns to look after the rusty key.
The gang members all have their own little qualities and traits, but the two stand-out characters are Marion, because of her incredible understanding of dogs, her calmness and practicality under pressure, and her kindness, as well as her daring; and Gaby, who, although is the leader of the gang (because he is the oldest) is only one of two children (the other being Fernand) to express his emotions through crying. So in their way both are surprisingly forward-looking role models for the two sexes – it’s ok for girls to be strong, and it’s ok for boys to be emotional. Another vital element of this particular gang is their over-riding honesty, as shown when they empty their pockets in front of the reporters.
Although the girls are just as daring as the boys – and given Marion’s special position within the gang as treasurer – the times are still traditional enough for it to be expected that the girls will do the gang’s domestic chores, like preparing food and tidying up, whilst Gaby and the boys make plans. It is perhaps a criticism that the younger female members of the gang are its least well described and least interesting characters.
At the end, they’re almost prepared to make Sinet a member of the gang; they always show generosity towards those who have been generous to them. But they don’t trust outsiders as a whole; which is why they make up silly answers to the journalists’ and reporters’ questions that they fear will expose them and give them publicity they don’t want.
Other thoughts that came to mind whilst reading this book were surprise at the genuine moment of peril when the crooks start shooting at the children through the slats in the barricade. The gang members treat the attack with contempt, but, seriously, this could have killed someone! And the sequence where Berna joyfully describes Marion’s gradual summoning of the dogs to come help fight the crooks reminded me of the twilight bark in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, written in 1956. If there’s any sense of copycat about the two scenes, note that A Hundred Million Francs came first!
Given these are all decent people, I was quite surprised at this brief exchange:
Sinet (of Roublot): Did you know he’d already been to prison?
Fernand: No, but you can tell what he’s like by his face.
Talk about judgemental!
Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of A Hundred Million Francs. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any more spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!
Chapter One – Half Holiday. We’re instantly introduced to Gaby and the rest of his gang; ten children careering down the hill between the rue des Petits-Pauvres at the top and the rue de la Vache Noire at the bottom, on the famous Headless Horse toy. It had been bought for Fernand Douin by his father from a rag and bone man (or rather exchanged for three packets of black tobacco) but its head and legs didn’t last long – and it never even had a tail.
Other gang members we meet are Marion, the gang’s treasurer, who rescues and returns abandoned dogs to health; little Bonbon, whose job it is to stand on corners and warn passers-by that the headless horse might be racing through; Tatave, Bonbon’s older and more corpulent brother, who always brakes at the wrong moment; Juan, “the little Spanish boy”; Zidore Loche; Mélie; Berthe Gédéon; Amélie Babin, “the gang’s first-aid expert”; and Criquet Lariqué, “the little darky from the Faubourg-Bacchus”. These were different times, and I’m sure that was not meant to be offensive.
You can tell that Gaby is the leader of the gang by the heroic way in which it’s described that he holds the record for lasting longest on the horse; 35 seconds without once putting on the brakes. Gaby insists on having no one older than twelve in his gang, because “once you’re over twelve, you become a complete fool and you’re lucky if you don’t stay like that for the rest of your life.” Like any generous despot, he plans to extend the age limit to fourteen, so that he himself doesn’t fall foul of his own rules.
We’re in the town of Louvigny-Triage. Clearly a railway town, “all the men were on the tracks, in the sidings, the signal boxes, or the railway workshops, and the women were either shopping in the Quartier-Neuf or were strolling round the Thursday Market.” When Fernand thinks the horse is broken for ever, he thinks “there was nothing like it from Louvigny to Villeneuve-Saint-Georges” (a small commune in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris).
Other local residents whom we meet, largely as a result of their accidental clashes with the horse, are M. Gédéon, Berthe’s father; M. Mazurier, the coalman; César Aravant, the scrap merchant; “Old Zigon”, who gets money for old bottles; Mme Macharel, who has a bakery in the Market; Roublot, another market trader – “a nasty-looking specimen, with a heavy, sallow face that mirrored his petty dishonesty”; Inspector Sinet (of whom more later); M Joye, Gaby’s 17-stone, mechanic father; Mme Louvrier, Bonbon and Tatave’s mother; and Mme Fabert, Marion’s mother.
While the gang are at the market, observing Roublot spouting his selling patter, all eyes turn to the subtle figure of Inspector Sinet, who seems to be following a man in a blue boiler-suit through the market. Roublot appears particularly ill-at-ease seeing this, and before long he’s left all his stock and market stall equipment where it was and fled. On his way back home, Fernand notices the headless horse lying in the middle of the road, far from the safe place he had left it for his father to repair. At that point, Roublot appears, silent and menacing; but Marion, who’s with Fernand, lets out a piercing whistle; three of her biggest doggy friends came to the call, and once more Roublot flees.
Sadly, M. Douin takes a good look at the broken horse and realises he can’t fix it. The problem is a broken fork. Tears fall from Fernand’s eyes. But M. Douin has a plan – the next morning they will visit M. Rossi at the car factory who will be able to forge a new fork for them with ease. The chapter ends with father and son, happily mending other parts of the horse, whilst Mme Douin watches with amusement.
Chapter Two – Goodbye to the Horse. Not a very optimistic chapter title – is this the end of the horse? We’ll find out! But first, an explanation of the Black Cow, as in rue de la Vache Noire. Marion thinks it refers to an abandoned engine – continuing with the emphasis on this being a railway town – with Berna’s lovely phrase describing its out-of-place presence, “as unexpected as a hippopotamus in a field of daisies”. Gaby, Marion and some of the lads keep their promise to Old Zigon to replace the bottles they broke the previous day, emphasising that they’re honest and decent types. They consider going to the pictures, but it’s too expensive, especially as they have to pay for the two poorest members of the gang. Tatave suggests selling the bottles to Old Zigon, but Marion points out that they’re not theirs to sell, and that it would look bad trying to make money out of an old man. Again, that underlines both their decency and how hard-up this environment is. In the end, Marion gets the money from a lady, whose Pekinese Dog Marion had nursed back to health.
Meanwhile, at the Café Parisien, Roublot is seen deep in conversation with some other “toughs” – “deep in conversation, leaning across the table, their hats nearly touching”. Inspector Sinet also turns up at the café, a sticking plaster on his cheek, which gives the gang members something to laugh at. And on Saturday night, M. Douin comes home with the horse. M. Rossi had given it a coat of paint, greased the hubs, put back the wheels and straightened the bent spokes. It’s while the children are testing the horse to see how well it’s running that M. Douin tells his strange tale; that someone at the Café Parisien had offered him five thousand francs for the horse. When Douin refuses, he offers him ten thousand. Ten thousand!!
Whilst the gang members are playing with the horse they notice two men in fur-lined lumber jackets watching them. Somewhat spooked by this, they return home. When M. Douin looks through his window he confirms that the two men are the same two who made the ridiculously expensive offer to buy the horse. A couple of days later, the same two men try to grab the horse off some of the younger members of the gang. Things escalate as the gang continue to refuse to sell, and then the men start to get violent. “Wait till the toe of my boot gets you, my lad” says the one called Pépé; “I bet it doesn’t,” snorted Gaby, “My dad’s the only one who can lay a finger on me, and he has to catch me first.” And just as it seems like there’s going to be a big fight between them all, Marion whistles for her doggy friends, and Hugo, the boar-hound, Fritz and César all come at her command and attack the men. As soon as the one called Ugly cries for help, Marion calls them off; and the two men limp away, defeated, and with their coats ruined. But just why are they so interested in the horse?
M Douin decides to do a bit of investigating himself. He calls on Blache, the rag and bone man, from whom he originally obtained the horse. Blache remembers the unusual circumstances in which he came across the horse – clearing bomb damage in Petit-Louvigny. Whilst he was looking at it, someone told him that the horse had belonged to him before the bomb damage destroyed the house. When Blache tried to identify this man – as he knew the people who had lived in the area – the man told him to beat it, and take the horse with him. But Blache finally remembered the man’s name – Mallart – and had discovered that Inspector Sinet had arrested him last week. And – good news – Blache still owned the head that went with the body.
When Douin gets home, he discovers that Fernand hasn’t arrived home yet, and Mme Douin begins to get concerned. So he goes out to look for him, and thinks he should find Gaby’s dad to ask if he knows where his son is. M. Joye informs him that the horse had been stolen!
Chapter Three – Inspector Sinet. Next day, it’s back out with the gang on the horse, riding high through the neighbourhood. However, on his turn, Fernand loses control of the horse and is flung from the saddle, whilst the horse continues on its merry way, straight into the path of some burly men in a van – including Pépé and Ugly, who take hold of it and speed off with the gang’s prize possession. Hurt and outraged, they decide to report the theft to the police; on the way meeting Father Brissard, who sympathises with their plight.
Inspector Sinet and his colleague Lamy lament how uselessly they spend their days, never grappling with any proper criminals. They long to be allowed to work on an exciting case, like the recent robbery of a hundred million francs from the Paris-Ventimiglia Express. Nevertheless, they listen to the gang tell their story, and in return, Sinet and Lamy promise to help. Sinet is just about to screw up his notes and chuck them in the bin when he remembers that the horse had indirectly helped him to capture Mallart the other evening – so he felt more inclined to help. Then Messieurs Joye and Douin show up, apologising for the kids but explaining that the horse is really all they have. Sinet is now determined to do his best to help.
Chapter Four – A Rusty Key. Going home from school, Marion and Fernand agree they must find a replacement for the horse, or else the gang risks falling apart. Marion suggests training one of her dogs as a gift for Fernand, but he refuses because his mother doesn’t like animals. Fernand lets himself into his house but carelessly fails to close the door properly. He’s soon joined by the intimidating Roublot, foot in the door, holding a large square parcel. Inside is a brand-new train set, which he says the market folk had clubbed together to buy for the gang as a way of saying sorry that the horse had been stolen. Fernand is unimpressed. Furious, Roublot takes it back, and then does his best to search the kitchen cupboards, wardrobes and other hiding places. But Fernand threatens Roublot with the fire poker and he soon flees the scene. Shortly afterwards, Inspector Sinet arrives, wanting to know why Roublot was there. Somewhat improperly, Sinet asks if he could search the house and Fernand assents – but it is to be their secret.
The next day, Roublot sets up his stall as usual. He demonstrates his amazing potato chipper to the crowds and sells a couple. Then he realises there are ten young people still watching him – the gang. All on their best behaviour, quietly intimidating him back. At first he tries to laugh it off, but then he loses his temper and threatens to give them a “cuff around the ears”. But none of the gang breaks rank, and it’s Roublot who packs up his stall and flees.
Fernand and Marion start to set up the abandoned sawmill shed as the new gang HQ. After their meagre meal and one shared cigarette, they start to talk about the stolen horse; specifically, when and why it suddenly created such an interest. Realising that it happened on the night of the big accident, eventually they conclude it must have been something that Fernand and his father removed from inside the horse when they were working on it. Fernand remembers that, amongst the removed items was an old key. Gaby’s convinced that it’s also the key to the mystery and insists they abandon their meal and try to find the key at Fernand’s house. They find it, take it back to the shed and read that it has a label attached: “Billette Works, 224 Ponceau Road”.
Chapter Five – The Abandoned Factory. Inspector Sinet has spent some time trying to follow up the horse-theft but is currently drawing a blank. Roublot is hard to catch, no one has heard of Ugly or Pépé, and he notes that even the children go missing. But he is convinced that the children have accidentally got themselves caught up in some crime or other.
Following a tip-off from an old woman who had seen a fire burning at the gang’s shed every evening, Sinet discovers its whereabouts; and is surprised to be met by the ten children, wearing masks they had found elsewhere in the Billette factory, kicking a cardboard chicken about in some kind of frenzied football game. He doesn’t disclose that he has seen them; it’s useful to him to know where to find them if needed. For several days the gang continue to explore the old factory. It seemed to have stopped, mid-production, with partly made fancy dress clothes and accessories, shortly after the war; and the gang frequently parade around in silly wigs and costumes, making each other laugh with their inventive games.
Walking home one evening, Marion stops and insists on looking inside the Black Cow, to make sure no one is hiding in there. Everyone thinks she’s joking, but she goes in. And, although she keeps it a secret for a short while, she later reports that there were two men hiding inside. The chapter ends with Marion doing her evening walk with her dogs – and noting that they are unusually restless that night.
Chapter Six – All the Dogs in the World. After school on Saturday, all the gang members meet at Marion’s house and then go on into the Clos Pecqueux, ostensibly for a run. But Marion is keeping a look-out; and notices two men get out of the Black Cow once they have walked past. One heads back into the town, the other follows the children. In hiding, Marion and Fernand observe a car drive up in the darkness; then five men emerge and enter the Billette building where the rest of the gang were encamped. Gaby and Fernand attempt to barricade themselves in by shoving old work benches up against the door, whilst Marion remains at the entrance hall, and the younger gang members are still playing with the carnival masks – the barricade looked like the remains of a party, with all the broken boxes of festive items. Room by room, the older gang members make it as difficult as possible for the men to progress, but gradually the men power their way through, somehow or other. When they finally stumble in to the end room, one trips over a pig’s head mask and clatters through some old paint cans. When he gets up the gang all laugh at the fact that he has acquired a false black beard.
Fernand and Gaby can identify three of the men as Ugly, Pépé and Roublot; the other two are masked by the collars of their heavy overcoats. Refusing to respond to the threats of Ugly and Pépé, or the hundred francs bribe offered by one of the other men, Zidore and Juan throw some detonator bangers over the top of the boxes so that it sounds like the men are being attacked by gunshot. The arising confusion allows Gaby and Fernand to rejoin the others. But then the men really do let loose with their pistols and start shooting at the children through the slats. And whilst the gang pelt back with their bangers, Ugly and Roublot drag the bench back from the previous room and use it as a battering ram.
Meanwhile, what was Marion doing? She had whistled and called with all her might, and summoned the presence of no fewer than sixty dogs from all around the neighbourhood! They all run back to the Billette building and lay siege on the helpless crooks from behind.
Chapter Seven – A Hundred Million Francs. It’s M. Douin who first notices the noises and lights coming from the disused factory and rings the station-master’s office to warn him. As a result, Sinet and Lamy are sent to find out what’s going on. They discover Marion, with all the dogs holding guard over the crooks; on her command, the dogs all let go of the bedraggled men, leaving them for Sinet to deal with. The other gang members slowly come to light – although Bonbon keeps his hiding place just a little while longer, thereby causing a few worries – and Sinet tasks them with emptying all the cupboards on the look out for… what?
But there was no need. “There was the Inspector, standing in the middle of the room with his mouth agape and his arms dangling at this sides, up to his ankles in a carpet of banknotes that shimmered in the flickering light of the torches.” Wads of notes were falling from big grey sacks – Lamy counted eleven sacks of banknotes in all. Sinet, Lamy and the children had located the hundred million francs that had gone missing from the Paris – Ventimiglia Express. And then the bombshell – Sinet rounds on Gaby and asks if they’d not gone into the room where all the money had been stashed, and his reply is: “of course we’ve seen them”; and Marion adds “but Inspector […] there’s so much of it! We thought it was false like all the rest.” Sinet gets the children to pick up all the loose notes and pack them back into a sack whilst he watches them, which really offends Gaby. “Thieves? Us? Not likely”.
Fernand loses his temper with Ugly as he was being taken out by the policemen, “and began to pummel his face with both fists, crying at the top of his voice, “where’s the horse?” Sinet is moved by his frustration, but Fernand confirms that “without the horse we wouldn’t have been here tonight and you’d still be looking for your millions!” “How so?” asked Sinet, astonished. “The key was in the horse,” Fernand proclaimed […] “Dad and I had emptied the horse out a few days before, and Dad put the key aside without thinking.”
Chapter Eight – The Sixth Man. In the days that followed, the children were required to accompany Sinet to be questioned by the Examining Magistrate; but they were frustrated by the fact that none of the questions related to the theft of the horse. His prime concern was the identity of the sixth man. Five of the crooks have been accounted for – but who is the sixth? Little Bonbon accuses Sinet, much to the Court’s amusement and Sinet’s embarrassment. The inspector admits he was watching the children – and it was all because of the horse. But as a thank-you, the children give the Inspector five fat gold cigars. And all that matters after that is laughing about what a mockery their Court appearance was.
Sinet and the children reconstruct the time when they watched Roublot at the market a fortnight earlier, trying to work out who the man in the blue boiler-suit was. Eventually it tumbles to Sinet – it was the petty thief he’d arrested that evening, Mallart. He’s the sixth man. He had the key – and because Sinet was on his tail, he dropped into the headless horse. And Mallart was already in jail!
Then the town is besieged by reporters, trying to build up a story to get maximum newspaper sales. The children are happy to put their side of the story, but didn’t trust the reporters not to make it into something sensational. The chief reporter asks Bonbon how much of the money he took. One by one, each gang member empties his or her pockets in front of the reporter, showing how little they had. And then Gaby reports the news that the bank cashiers had counted all the money and the full hundred million francs was still intact – plus one sou, that Tatave had added in as a joke. Not to be defeated, the reporters asked if the children would pose for a photo for the newspaper with all the dogs. They set the photograph up, and when Marion calls for the dogs – they all chase the reporters and photographers who were never seen in Louvigny again.
Chapter Nine – The Horse with a Head. It’s mid-January, and the gang have met up in the club for a slap-up meal of potatoes and hot chocolate. An unexpected guest surprises them – it’s Inspector Sinet wanting to tell them the story behind the whole adventure. The gang can’t wait to hear it.
It had been a well-planned raid on the Paris-Ventimiglia Express, but the problem was that someone had fenced off the end of the road where Mallart was due to take delivery of the money. This meant that the job would take much longer than expected, which is why Mallart decided to dump the money at the Billette Factory and wait for Roublot to join him at a little house rented nearby for the purpose.
But Roublot didn’t come, because he too had had some bad luck. He thought he had received a police summons, and fled to Paris to provide himself an alibi. When he got there, he realised it was only a renewal of his street-trading licence, so he returned to Louvigny but couldn’t find Mallart. Roublot decided to go to the market as usual, and Mallart telephoned him via the local café to arrange a meeting time and place. But Sinet was hot on Mallart’s tail, so he dropped the keys into the horse which had just tripped him up – and the rest is history. However, it looks like there won’t be a reward. The bank never promised one, and the people to whom the money belonged weren’t keen to come to an agreement. The gang members look on the bright side, realising the complications of receiving a lot of money.
But there’s one last surprise. One morning, M. Douin answers the door to discover the horse has been returned. It was old Blache who had found it, miles away, on a rubbish dump. The children are, of course, delighted, and Fernand reunites it with its head. Gaby is chosen to give it its first ride. But as he’s heading down la rue de la Vache Noire, out of control, he collides with Old Zigon and his bottle cart. Sixty bottles smashed – but, good news, there are five hundred down in the Billette Factory that he can take.
However, Gaby is in tears, as he confesses he is twelve years old now and too old to be a gang member. He’s furious with himself that he’s too old even to ride the horse safely. He tells the others they will have to find a replacement for him. But, of course, none of them accepts that. Marion says: “sooner or later we’ll all be twelve, but that’s no reason why we should break away from each other. We’ll grow up together, that’s all.” Old Zigon agrees: “the world’s all right if you’ve got good friends.” The book ends with all the gang members laughing and Sinet watching them – and declining an offer to have a ride on the horse!
To sum up; Paul Berna’s first, and most successful book in terms of his reputation and sales, was and still is an escapist delight. The camaraderie between the youngsters and their willingness to be brave and do the right thing comes across as aspirational – I know that’s how I felt when I read this as a child. It’s no surprise that this is the only Paul Berna book that has never been out of print. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Next in the Paul Berna Challenge is the book he published the following year – The Street Musician. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.
I’ve been humming and hahhing about this for a long time, gentle reader; do I want to give myself yet another challenge alongside the Agatha Christies, the James Bonds, plus all the usual theatre, reviewing and travel stuff? And do I really want to do it about Paul Berna, of whom I expect most of my readers won’t have a clue who he is?
But I came back to the two main reasons why I’m tempted to do this challenge. Firstly, he’s a writer who represents a small, but very happy part of my childhood memories. At the age of somewhere under ten, I read both A Hundred Million Francs and The Clue of the Black Cat and loved them both – in fact, I think The Clue of the Black Cat is still my favourite children’s book. I wanted to read more, but the school library where I borrowed those books didn’t have any other of his work; and then Agatha Christie took over my interests, and Paul Berna got slightly forgotten about. So I want to right that wrong by re-reading all his books and recording my thoughts about them.
Secondly, although A Hundred Million Francs is relatively well-known, and has only recently come back into print, there’s very little critical opinion online about his books as a whole. Many of them are listed on Goodreads but have never even received just one reader’s comment! Google his name and a random book title and, like as not, 99% plus of the hits will be a link to where you can buy second-hand copies of it. There’s the occasional reference to his works in a few random blog posts; one French reviewer has written a few words (very few) about a handful of his books. But no one has gone into any kind of detail about him. I sense that my time has come! And if I can interest just one person into discovering his books for the first time, or re-reading some childhood favourites, then I’ll be a very happy chap.
In case you don’t know, Paul Berna was a pseudonym used by Jean-Marie-Edmond Sabran. He was French, and lived from 1908 to 1994. He also used the noms-de-plume Bernard Deleuze, Paul Gerrard and Joel Audrenn, as well as writing under his own name, Jean Sabran. He used the name Paul Berna for his books for children, and that’s where he realised his greatest success; Paul was his father’s name, and Berna was the surname of his German great-grandmother. As Berna, he wrote 26 children’s novels, including a few for very young children, two science-fiction oriented (although still featuring young people) and three that were never translated into English. The other 16 I have hunted down in second-hand bookshops over the years, and more recently online. I probably should buy the two science-fiction books too!
So here’s the deal. I’m going to re-read A Hundred Million Francs, as that was not only his biggest seller, but also the first of his books that really took off – published in 1955. And then I’ll write an appreciation of it. It may be, gentle reader, that this is the one book of his that you too have read; if so, I’d love you to re-read it too, and then we can compare notes. All being well, I’ll then move on to his next book, The Street Musician, and so on. Maybe I’ll even go back to those earlier science fiction books – we’ll see. For years, all his books were out of print; so if you want to join me in this quest, you may have to spend some time in second-hand bookshops or on Amazon or Ebay. In the meantime, A Hundred Million Francs is only 170 or so pages of paperback and if I remember rightly, it’s a cracking read, so we should get through it quite quickly. Let’s give Paul Berna the online acclaim and attention he deserves!